Family Matters

About that Atlantic Article, Why Working from Home Isn’t the Answer for Working Moms

Not to complain too much, but you might consider shedding a tear for the work-from-home mom, whose job flexibility only increases her workload

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To the working-mom crowd, Anne-Marie Slaughter recently became a darling or a demon — depending on your perspective — with a conversation-starter of an essay in the Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

She makes so many valid points that it’s hard to keep track. But one of her premises, at least in my mind, is misguided. In her words:

Being able to work from home — in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends — can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.

As a work-at-home mom, let the record reflect that job flexibility — what Slaughter holds up as the great salvation of hard-charging female employees who happen to dearly love their kids too — ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Rest easy: I’m not about to indulge in whining about my lack of face time with my editors or my longing for the camaraderie of colleagues. I’m here to testify, from firsthand experience, that despite the obvious and myriad benefits, working from home can actually wreak havoc with your free time, your husband (or whatever person you happen to be in love with) and your relationship with your children — who curiously happen to be precisely the people you’re trying to accommodate by doing the work-from-home jig.

While I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work from home, it is not the key to my “full load.” In fact, it only serves to make my load fuller. Why? Because I feel that I’m always on the clock, both in terms of my job and my kids. Having job flexibility only encourages me to do more of everything. Because I technically can attend a class performance or volunteer at my kids’ schools — I don’t have to skip out of an office under the watchful eyes of my boss or cross town to see a five-minute class skit — I feel obligated to do so.

(MORE: Why Are We Arguing about ‘Having It All’ When Most Parents Have So Little?)

As a result, I’m burning the midnight oil while my husband is watching Netflix. For many working moms, late-night evenings are more the rule than the exception. In fact, 10 p.m. to midnight have become the most productive hours of the day for many of us. But that doesn’t mean either office moms or the house-bound variety are happy about it, observes Lori Gottlieb — who splits her time between home and office — in an Atlantic retort to Slaughter’s essay called Why There’s No Such Thing as ‘Having It All’ — and There Never Will Be:

[Slaughter] also believes that mothers would just love more opportunities to spend those utterly exhausting post-bedtime hours — when their brains are so fried that they’re slurring their words and their bodies are so weak that they’re too tired to have sex — doing even more work on their computers until midnight. Does being on the computer late at night feel liberating to most mothers? Is that how they’d like to spend their evenings?

It’s doubtful. And yet the same scene plays out night after night.

Perhaps if I were less of a Type A personality, I’d be able to ditch the late-night work session and go to sleep at the same time as my husband. Studies have shown that bedding down at the same time makes couples healthier. I feel badly that time with him comes after time with the kids and time with the Macbook. But my work needs to get done and my kids need my attention. That’s a lot of needing. Slaughter quotes Mary Matalin on her decision to leave the Bush White House:

I finally asked myself, “Who needs me more?” And that’s when I realized, it’s somebody else’s turn to do this job. I’m indispensable to my kids, but I’m not close to indispensable to the White House.

Am I also indispensable to my husband? I like to think so, yet his desire to spend time with his wife gets shelved. I’m far from the only one of my generation of 30- and 40-something working wives and mothers who feels compelled to prioritize kids and jobs over marriage. It’s a gamble, this quest to have it all, and I’m not sure how long it can last.

(MORE: Stay-at-Home Moms Report More Sadness, Anger and Depression than Working Moms)

Last week, Toure noted on TIME Ideas that women’s yearning to be all things to all people — and to ourselves — is not exclusive to the fairer sex; dads want to be an active part of their family too. Yet women, even he acknowledges, have it tougher. I have a hunch as to why: it’s because we’re lousy at separating work life from home life. When men are working, they’re working. When women are working, they’re also texting the sitter to make sure she takes one kid to soccer and picks the other up from swimming, remembering that tomorrow is school picture day so the kids absolutely must submit to a bath tonight and pledging that today is the day we’ll finalize the guest list for the child whose birthday passed by last month. In other words, we’re multitasking and, truth be told, it doesn’t agree with us.

In December, I wrote about a study in the American Sociological Review that found that moms are doing more than one thing at a time during 43% of their waking hours — and they’re pretty bitter about it. Explained the researcher, Shira Offer, an assistant professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University in Israel: “We expect mothers to be good workers who are highly committed to their work, but they are also the ones held accountable for how their children do and how their households are run,” says Offer. “So they have to multitask. There’s no other way to do it.”

I discussed this the other night with a friend, a college professor who works in the same field as Slaughter. She shared with me a comment on the Atlantic’s website that’s become her new mantra, something short, pithy and memorable along the lines of: Kids are not TV shows. There are no reruns.

I responded to her via email: “I think I need to write that on a piece of paper and put it at eye level in front of my computer, with which I spend far more time than any member of my family.” 

I consider myself fortunate for many reasons, not least of all because I love my work. I spent years covering government and politics until I fell into my real passion — having, and writing about, kids. But often, I can’t help but feel guilty. Many days, I write about parenting far more than I actually do it. That, for me — and for so many women striving to blend, not balance, work and family — is the ultimate irony: I love my kids. I love my husband. I love my job. Now what? 

MORE: Parents — Especially Dads — Are Happier than their Childless Pals