By Katy Read
In unexpected ways, the Great Recession has been good for Amy Stone. Oh, not the fact that her family has had to slash expenses: downscaling the cable and cell-phone plans, cutting back on restaurant meals, dropping their dental coverage. And certainly not the fact that her husband was laid off and, though he has a new job, is now making $50,000 less than he formerly earned.
But for Stone, the hard times have presented an opportunity to build a business doing work she loves to do: creating handmade baby gifts, ceramic baby hand and feet impressions, murals, jewelry, pottery—basically offering her artistic talents “to anyone who has an idea.”
Stone, a former FedEx executive who took a buyout to be a stay-at-home mother—she now has two daughters: one four years old, the other eighteen months—has an art degree. She put it to use about four years ago, when she began cutting, painting and renting out wooden stork-shaped “new baby” yard signs (having been inspired to improve upon a sign she received for her older daughter’s birth that was “absolutely ugly”). The venture grew slowly at first, by word of mouth. But after her husband lost his brokerage job, Stone decided to get more proactive. In January, she launched a website advertising her creations and offering an expanded line of merchandise.
“Now I’ve got so much work I can hardly keep up,” says Stone, forty, who lives in Byhalia, Mississippi. “I have people from all over the United States calling me asking me, ‘Can you do this,’ ‘Can you do that.’ And I’m one who has a hard time saying no, so I usually try to accommodate everybody.”
She doesn’t make nearly what she used to make at FedEx, but as a tradeoff for being home with her children and homeschooling her older daughter, “it all breaks even to me.”
For the chance for a parent to stay home and care for the children—to take them to playgrounds and the beach, to be there when they get home from school, to avoid the frantic schedules and frustrating compromises involved in balancing full-time work and raising children—many families willingly make sacrifices. Plenty of single-income families cheerfully forgo new cars, fancy vacations and other luxuries. But in the current recession, the worst in recent memory, those measures may not be enough. What once seemed like a reasonable and rewarding choice has forced many single-income families to rethink their decision.
Not all stay-at-home mothers are as lucky as Stone, able to monetize their talent and ideas in a pinch. But many are casting about for ways to improve their earning power. With spouses’ jobs threatened, investments and home values clobbered, and household budgets straining at the seams, mothers who have spent years comfortably at home have started brushing the dust off their résumés, or looking for ways to make extra income on their own.
Experts aren’t certain exactly how many stay-at-home mothers have returned to work, or where, or doing what. And although economic cataclysms can bring about long-term changes in social, economic, and political behavior, it’s not yet clear what the consequences will be this time around. “You can never be in the eye of the storm and know what’s happening,” says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (1990). But the logical assumption that hard times might push at-home mothers back into the workplace seems to be supported by federal statistics, Goldin says. The number of women in the labor force, which includes women actually working as well as those just looking for work, has inched upward, suggesting that some women who had previously kept themselves out of the labor force (including at-home mothers), are at least trying to get back in.
“This recession has brought home to huge numbers of women that opting out is just too scary from a family finance point of view,” said Joan Williams, a legal scholar and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “It has been a rude awakening and has dramatized for people the true economic consequences.”
Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now hold about half of all jobs. The recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” or “he-cession” because about three-quarters of those who have lost jobs are men, has battered male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas jobs in female-dominated professions like healthcare and education are stable or growing.
Though still digesting what women might gain from this new strength in numbers, some observers hope that it will finally prompt long-sought changes in both homes and workplaces that could potentially improve mothers’ lives. A national study of women’s status published in October, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, examines various issues that complicate the lives of working parents—particularly those of mothers—and floats the idea that women’s increased representation in the workplace could spur dramatic societal change. Spearheaded by California First Lady and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, the report argues that government and businesses should adjust policies to meet the needs of their women employees. The report also suggests that men are seeing, or at least at some point will see, the need to do their fair share at home, becoming equal partners with their co-breadwinners in household chores and childcare. Some commentators, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem, have noted that women’s mere presence in the work force may not be enough to spur these changes, but applaud the report for putting the conversation on the table.
Most mothers want to work, even if many would prefer part-time. A 2005 poll by the Institute for American Values demonstrated that, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of women would opt in to working, at least part time, while their children were young. The good news is that their contributions seem to be welcome; in a recent study conducted by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, majorities of both men and women said mothers are just as committed to their jobs as women without children, and just as productive at work as fathers. (However, the respondents seemed conflicted about how this might play out at home: Fifty-seven percent of men and fifty-one percent of women agreed that it is better for a family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.)
With more women bringing home the bacon, families and employers may better appreciate the importance of women’s earnings, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Policy makers are hopefully going to start taking seriously the need for workers to balance work and care—not just women but all workers.”
That would be great news for mothers who’ve felt unwillingly squeezed out of the workplace by policies that don’t accommodate the needs of families, according to Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007). In her book, Stone (no relation to artist Amy) interviewed mothers who “actually loved their jobs, wanted to stay in their jobs” but eventually left them because they found their demanding schedules made staying at work and raising children too difficult.
Much as mothers might need and desire more workplace options—flexible hours, part-time work, telecommuting—in tough times some employers conclude that they can’t afford to offer those things, possibly becoming even more inhospitable to parents’ needs, Williams, of Worklife Law, says. And employees, thankful to have jobs at all, are more afraid to rock the boat. So at-home mothers returning to work may find the workplace more hostile than it was when they left.
Indeed, Pamela Stone says, the recession might have changed the outlook of women like those she interviewed, forcing them to find ways to stick it out at work, a decision she says would probably be for the best. “Because it’s too perilous a time,” she says. “Based on where things are now, and what I know about some of the difficulties about returning to work, if you’ve got a job that you can make work, make it work.”
But there are some indications that workplaces are already becoming more flexible, not just to make moms happy but also to control businesses’ own costs. A study conducted in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that eighty-one percent of employers have maintained the level of flexibility they offered before the economic meltdown, and thirteen percent have increased it, offering perks such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, voluntary reduced hours, and phased retirement.
“Workplace flexibility is one of the hidden, strategic workplace management tools that has allowed employers to respond to many different ups and down,” said Lois Backon, vice president of the Institute.
Turns out such measures aren’t just a boon to parents and others employees who’d like to work fewer hours: They also help businesses cut costs, not to mention hang onto valuable employees rather than lay them off, Williams says. “One of the great problems in managing a recession is gearing up once it’s over. If you give everybody the opportunity to flex their hours and reduce them if they want … once the demand returns, you already have the people you need on staff.”
Those flexible options may be great for many parents, but mothers reentering the work force after years away may be reluctant to take advantage of them, for fear of seeming less than fully dedicated. New employees often feel they first need to prove themselves, said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids (2008). Stanton, who has three children and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., is job hunting herself these days. She applied for one contract position that would have required her to commute into the city five days a week. When she asked to work from home twice a week, the employer declined, and she didn’t get the job. Now she feels she should have taken the job as it was offered, proved her value, and then asked for a partial telecommuting arrangement.
“That’s advice that was given to me by a woman who’s got a really great job that she can now do at home,” Stanton said. “You go in and you work your butt off, and for a year or two your children and your spouse need to know you may not be at home until eight o’clock at night, the kids might be in bed by the time you get home.”
But that kind of full-throttle work commitment is a pretty tall order for many mothers, still burdened with more than their share of housework and childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even employed married mothers of young children do two-thirds of the household work. Men have started doing more around the house, but still far from half, said Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family (2009). Despite all that women have gained in the workplace, the division of household chores can sometimes seem “like a page ripped out of a history book or something,” Moe says.
One woman the authors interviewed for their book, a woman who held an MBA from an Ivy League school (as did her husband), said that after becoming a mother she noticed all of the changes she had made in her life to accommodate her new role.
“And she looked at her husband, and he had not made one single change,” Moe says. “She said, ‘We’re like this 1950s couple, and I don’t know how that happened.’ “
Kathy Pape of Las Vegas has been frustrated with the division of work in her family. Pape left a job as a television reporter in Monterey, California, to stay home with her two small sons. But since her husband, a photojournalist for a television network, had his pay reduced, cutting the family’s income by hundreds of dollars a month, Pape has been helping make ends meet with freelance public-relations jobs. Now she works about forty hours a week (her husband works about fifty), but she still does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.
“I love my husband, but he doesn’t do any of that stuff,” says Pape, thirty-five. “He gives me the old, ‘I go to work every day, I’m tired.’ He has no clue how it is, none.”
Meanwhile, the recession also is limiting the extent to which families such as Pape’s can pay for conveniences and outside help with domestic chores. For example, Pape has had to cut back on both ready-cooked deli meals and babysitters. Lately, when she’s at the computer in the daytime her sixteen-month-old has started “pulling the bottom drawer of my desk out, standing on it, trying to hit the mouse, hit the keyboard,” so she does most of her public-relations work at night, when the kids are in bed.
Yet she’s glad to have the chance to be home with her kids, she says. “You only get that shot once, and then they grow up.”
Could the recession mean the end of the so-called helicopter parent, who feels obliged to monitor his or her child’s every move and schedule the child with wall-to-wall classes, sports and activities intended to ensure his success in school and later life?
Logic suggests that strapped parents are less able to spend either time or money on their kids. Indeed, Pamela Stone suggests, at-home mothers who have felt obliged to sacrifice jobs and financial gain on behalf of their kids might eventually decide that providing financially for one’s kids is also part of caregiving, and that financial decisions that jeopardize mothers put their kids at risk, too.
“I think that there’s so much in our culture that really puts pressure on working moms to quit—the guilt trip and the like,” Stone says. When it gets tough, it helps to “keep remembering that the vast majority of moms are working.”
But hyperparenting may not die out so easily, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008). After all, overprotective parents usually act that way out of anxiety, and a recession certainly doesn’t help to allay anxiety.
“Anxiety doesn’t follow logic,” she said. “Anxiety has been ratcheted up in the recession. Parents are even more worried about the future of their kids. … It filters into a style of parenting that you have to be more vigilant, you have to monitor, there’s no room for a mistake. Perfection becomes the goal.”
Marano said that when she speaks to groups of parents, people in attendance seem more anxious than ever. For example, she says, some parents feel it’s even more important now for kids to get into competitive colleges. So they are “hiring tutors for this, tutors for that, are much more eager to see their kids on travel teams so the kids could get onto the varsity team.
Even in the best of times, re-entry in the job market can be tough for mothers who have been at home for a while. Experts say they already face various stigmas and assumptions, from ageism to the suspicion that they’re not sufficiently committed, dependable, ambitious or capable. In a 2007 study by psychologists at Northwestern, Princeton and Lawrence Universities, researchers measuring public perceptions of different groups found that “housewives” were perceived to be approximately as competent as elderly and mentally retarded people.
Jennifer Piehl has faced this uphill re-entry battle firsthand. For more than eleven years, she was a mostly full-time at-home mother to her three children, taking a few jobs as a tutor but rarely working more than a few hours a week. Being at home gave her the flexibility to get extra help for a son who has a hearing impairment.
Now, though, she is getting a divorce. Although she and her husband jointly made the decision for her to stay home, it is Piehl who is paying a steep and personal price for it. At thirty-eight, she has little means of supporting herself aside from whatever she winds up with in child support and alimony.
The financial inequities between Piehl and her soon-to-be ex-husband are stark. He earns more than $100,000 a year as a project manager for a large company, and hopes to buy out her share of their 3,100-square-foot house. Piehl earns $60 a week (at best) when she can get private tutoring jobs, plus whatever child support and spousal maintenance her husband winds up contributing. She will have to pay for her own health insurance. Her husband has urged her to buy a condominium, but she doesn’t want to do that because she can’t count on a steady income over the life of a mortgage. “My spousal maintenance doesn’t last thirty years. My child support doesn’t last thirty years,” Piehl says. “When my oldest turns eighteen, which is only seven and a half years from now, I start losing money. I can’t bank on getting remarried.” Instead, Piehl has moved in with her parents in a suburb outside Milwaukee.
Piehl has begun looking for a job, but having sent out more than fifty résumés, she’s been called for only a handful of interviews. Though she has a master’s degree in education, she has never taught full time, which she fears makes her appear simultaneously overqualified (teachers with post-graduate degrees get higher salaries) and underqualified. There’s no question that her years out of the full-time work force have placed her at a serious economic disadvantage.
She is hardly alone. According to recent numbers, getting hired is more difficult than ever for almost everyone. According to Boushey, the economist, thirty-six percent of unemployed workers have become so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market altogether for at least six months, the highest percentage since World War II. (The previous peak was twenty-six percent.) The employment picture varies from one industry to another, Boushey says, but statistically speaking, for every available job there are 6.3 people actively seeking work. In other words, someone applying for a job can expect, on average, more than five competitors—particularly dismal odds for those with gaps in their work history.
“For mothers, with that kind of competition, it kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit,” Boushey says.
Meanwhile, some mothers have found themselves opting out involuntarily. Margot Diamond, once a fast-track executive has been an at-home mother since she was laid off a year ago. Although she has made the most of her chance to take her two girls to activities, help with their homework and fix healthy meals, she wants to go back to work. So far, she can’t.
“I graduated college in 1987, and I have never seen an economy like this one,” says Diamond, a former product-development executive in suburban Dallas.
She has been laid off before, but other times she was able to get back to work fairly quickly. Recruiters courted her; big companies flew her around the country for interviews. This time, the phone isn’t ringing; the two hundred and fifty or so résumés she has sent out have generated only a handful of interviews.
“Somehow, whatever worked before is just not working this time, because no one’s hiring,” she says. As time goes on, she worries that employers will question her absence from the work force. “I know it’s more understood now, the way the economy is. Still, a year is a year.”
She’s willing to take a pay cut. In fact, Diamond, who once made more than $90,000 a year, has applied for unskilled retail jobs at the local mall—at Coach, J.Crew, Ann Taylor—without any luck. Which might be just as well, she acknowledges, considering that those jobs entail less-than-ideal hours and wages.
“Do I want to work on Saturdays and Sundays and not see my husband and kids, for eight dollars an hour, which is going to get taxed?” she wonders. “Or should I be providing value for my family?”
Author’s Note: I’m recently divorced after working very part time for many years. So I’m looking for a steadier paycheck, and can more than empathize with the women in this story facing their own financial predicaments. Much as I’d like to have found better news for all of us, it still seems too soon for much optimism. Frankly, in many professions, it sucks out there these days. But I’m inspired by people like Amy Stone, and other women I talked to, who look at the tough times as an opportunity to remake their lives—maybe even in a way that suits them better than what they would have chosen under easier circumstances.
The other great thing about looking for work in a recession is that you don’t feel lonely. It’s yet another reason for mothers—working full time or at home with children or somewhere in between—to stick together. Whatever our employment status, we all know the difficulty of trying to squeeze in all of our responsibilities, and maybe find a shred of time here and there for ourselves.
Brain, Child (Winter, 2010)
About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.