Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More on Working Mothers and the Quest for Work-Life Balance

I should be in bed. Petunia and I both have colds. I feel roughly like death warmed over, and she spiked a fever today and had to come home from day care. I'll be taking her to the ENT tomorrow afternoon, per his instructions that he needs to check her tonsils every time she has a fever. Good times.

But, someone is wrong on the internet. Or, more precisely, a doctor named Karen Siebert has written some things in the NY Times that I don't quite agree with. Or, even more precisely, the reactions to her post (see Historiann and Dr. Isis, for example), have me thinking about why my reaction to her piece was more negative than my reaction to the related commencement address that sparked last week's rant post.

Leaving aside my practical and selfish objection that I love our pediatrician, who keeps part time hours, so anything that might have driven her from the medical profession is necessarily a bad thing... I think I am just fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of a free society trying to dictate the details of how its members should arrange their family lives. I posted similar, but not fully formed, ideas as comments on Nicoleandmaggie's post about "choice feminism". As I said there, I find this tendency to judge, and try to dictate, how other people manage their work-life arrangements to be an extremely offputting feature of some left-leaning blogs, much like I find the tendency to judge, and try to dictate, other people's reproductive and marital freedoms an extremely offputting feature of a lot of right-leaning commentary. To the right wing, I say get out of my bedroom. To the left wing, I say get out of my kitchen.

That doesn't mean I'm fully comfortable with the large numbers of female doctors opting for part time hours, particularly if that becomes seen as the only way for a woman to have a medical career and a family. But there is a difference between encouraging young women to aim high and demanding that they fit someone else's idea of what a successful woman's life looks like.

Just like there is a difference between getting to a point in your life, looking at your unique circumstances and deciding that you need to make some changes and looking ahead and making
changes based on problems that "they" tell you are in your future.

I see nothing wrong with looking at the facts about the prevailing culture in a profession and deciding that it is just not for you, even if you find it interesting. Back in grad school, I changed my focus area because I was blown away by the unmitigated arrogance on display at the first conference I attended that covered my original focus area. But that is not the same as looking at an entire career path and saying that there is no place in it for mothers.

I also think that it is worth reminding people that a lot of what "they" say is just plain wrong. Surveys in which people actually track their time use show that people routinely inflate the number of work hours they report when just asked how many hours they work in a week. (I don't want to take the time to dig up a precise reference for that, but take a look at Laura Vanderkam's 168 hours blog and book.) At the very same time I was wading through a bunch of posts and real life comments about how it was "impossible" to combine motherhood with a career in science, three mothers won the Nobel prize in one year.

My longest employment stint at any company was at the contracting/consulting company I joined between my second and third biotech companies. I lasted 5 years there, which included the birth of my first child. It is also the most male-dominated company I've ever worked for. (Evidence: the wait list for a locker in the men's locker room was something like 10 years. I got a locker the same day that I asked for one.) When I first tried to look into my maternity leave options, I couldn't even find the word "maternity" in our employee handbook. And yet, it was the place at which I had my best work-life balance. Due to the particular way we charged our hours, there was flex time that everyone used. I cut my hours to 35 per week for awhile (with a corresponding cut in pay, of course), and suffered absolutely no loss of status. But "they" all tell me now that it is a cutthroat place, not at all good for women. I'm glad I didn't know what "they" said at the time I took the job.

I think the key reason that work-life balance was so good at that company was that it wasn't seen as woman's issue, or even a parent's issue. Everyone took the flex time. Lots of people had unique arrangements for their hours. Maybe there is something to learn from that.


  1. Nice post, Cloud!

    I just finished going through the comments at Isis's place and Historiann's, and I must say that all I feel is fatigue. I think I am officially supersaturated, at least for the moment, with work-life balance issues.

    Lots of commenters at Historiann's say that we need to get the men to pick up the slack, why is it only women's duty? I can speak from my own experience: I can only get my husband to do so much. And it's not much. He has not washed dishes once since we got married more than 11 years ago and does not cook. Once you have kids with someone, they know you will (typically) not just leave them because they won't do housework. They know they can get away with a lot, and they do it. Kudos to those who share all the chores 50-50 with their husbands, but I am not among these women.

    I am lucky that my husband is not overly ambitious so we were able to follow my ambition and my job; but he's almost like a baby when he doesn't get his way, or have enough time to devote to his hobbies, or whatever that he'd like to do (as opposed to doing the mundane everyday chores); it's always easier for me to give in for the sake of peace than constantly be in a tug of war. I can totally imagine that many women have serious arguments with their competitive, ambitious husbands and I am not surprised that the women give in if someone's career has to take a hit; someone's got to give in, and men are not raised to compromise. Simple as that. I don't know how to change it, but it's not easy, and we can all blog our heart and soul out, but the issues are at the level of individual families and communities, and have to do with how boys and girls are socialized. And in order to have equality for those boys and girls, it's certainly not helping if women everywhere make professional sacrifices and show the kids that women's careers are always a lower priority.

    Anyway, I am all for going full steam ahead with your career if there's any way in hell that you can pull it off (without completely ruining your physical and psychological health). Getting your foot off the pedal will result in professional reproach -- much more so for a woman than a man, but that's because women are still intruders in many well-paid fields. I am always skeptical about "solutions" that require that the whole system magically be overhauled into one with unicorns and rainbows and equality between sexes; that ain't gonna happen. I am much more in favor of giving individual women the tools and techniques to get what they want in the current system and within their lifetime. And the system is heavily rigged in favor of men. So if you want to be recognized and successful in ultracompetitive male-dominated fields in this life, yes, you must not get your foot off the gas pedal. For most women, if you want work-life balance you can either (a) sacrifice work, 'cause the hub won't, or (b) if you don't want to sacrifice work, you get to do much more than a man with the same job looking for the same balance (unless you are lucky and have a partner who shares obligations and really supports you). It would be nice if someone would give you a break for all the family obligations that you have on top of professional obligations, but don't hold your breath and don't be surprised if they don't...

  2. Anonymous4:44 AM

    Don't forget (c) Hire a personal assistant/housekeeper (and if you don't pool your money, the non-housecleaning husband should be paying for the majority of that). Also (d) put children of both genders to work.

  3. Zenmoo7:24 AM

    Oh god that Siebett article annoyed me. Moo has just woken up, so my rant will have to wait - but it'll be a good old ranty rant because the whole 'doctors are so special' thing gets RIGHT up my nose. In short, I'm with Isis - but I'll be back to expand on that tomorrow.

  4. I couldn't even finish the article. My jaw dropped at paragraph 3, and stayed dropped for the few more paragraphs I read. I haven't yet read Isis's or Historiann's posts, but all do that next. Here's my rant:

    First of all, I call bullsh!t on the whole taxpayers are losing investments. I just don't see this as a taxpayer issue. To claim that medical education is covered by taxpayers money therefore the future doctors of the world owe the taxpayers full time work? That is just ridiculous. Taxes support many levels of education, many different programs in all levels of education and so many other programs outside of education, medical or otherwise.

    I got a scholarship to a state school and instate tuition for my graduate studies. You know what? I'm not using what I learned in that field AT ALL! I also no longer live in that state. I don't feel I particularly owe that state anything, except my gratitude for recognizing my awesomeness. I use that phrase from @nicoleandmaggie's comment on your previous post that was in reference to society making mothers feel guilty. Because to me? This is another way to make mothers/women feel guilty. You women out there who dare to want to go into the medical field better not try for work/life balance, because you owe the taxpayers for the way taxes supported your education = GUILT! Bullsh!t!!!

    Next, let me address the whole idea of women daring to work part-time shouldn't be allowed because there are less people in the field. Has Ms. Sibert considered the fact that if it were more acceptable to work part-time or flexible schedules more people might opt to go into the field? I know one of the main reasons I have stayed with my current company so long is the flexibility they give me to do my job and how they offer part-time work, job sharing and make life and equal priority to work in the work/life balance equation. That's actually a huge selling point of my company to women and men, single, married and with children.

    Telling women who are finally making the ground-breaking decisions to work part time in the medical field that they shouldn't do it or they should feel guilty about it is setting back so much progress. As I commented in your previous post, the change in thinking and equality happens slowly, by women willing and able to pave the way and figure out how to make it work. And you know what happens once enough women AND MEN are doing it and used to it? It becomes the norm and people don't expect differently.

    Finally, I want to say that it is much easier for WOHM women like Cloud and me who have husbands that share housework, childrearing and working in equal ways. There is no doubt in my mind that I could be as happy with my work/life balance if it weren't for him and his feeling that this should be the norm. At times it is really a work/life unbalance when I have a release at work that requires long hours, or the kids are sick and need extra care, or when I tear my meniscus and can't do my share of the housework and childcare.

    @GMP, you said you don't know how to change the inequality in the housework when the husband doesn't do any of it. The best place I can think of is with our sons and daughters. I thank my husband's mom for his interest in cooking and his dad for encouraging all his interests. I thank my dad for treating me like I could do anything and my mom for pointing out that she shouldn't have had to do all the cleaning and cooking herself. My husband and I encourage both our son and daughter to play house in the play kitchen, dress up like doctors and build train tracks like engineers.

    My biggest problem with this whole issue is that society seems to think it's a "woman's" problem. It's not. It's a societal problem that BOTH women and men need to figure out together.

    Gah! I am just so worked up. I'm going to stop ranting now. Maybe I'll be back after I read other posts.

  5. Oh, also I'm so sorry you and Petunia are sick! I hope you guys get better soon. And I loved that link to the cartoon about someone being wrong on the internet! Hehe.

  6. I dont really understand. So if women decide to continue to be a doctor but go part time it hurts the profession more than leaving entirely? I think everyone has the right to make their own personal choices based on what their employer and supervisor can agree with. Confused and tired. Sorry you're sick, I got wiped out by something this week too...

  7. scantee11:43 AM

    Siebett seriously reads as someone proposing change out a feeling of personal resentment. Since most "part-time" physicians work hours that most would consider full-time I think her argument is not going to hold sway with people who feel the hour requirements of professional, salaried jobs ever increasing and onerus.

    As a feminist and parent, I consider my most important task to be raising my two boys with worldviews different (and better, in my opinion) from this generations crop of young men. This type of change is so slow it's really hard to appreciate but I do feel it is the root of generational change towards greater gender equity. Though, as GMP mentioned, it can be so hard to step outside established patterns to even know when a problematic dynamic exists. Just recently I realized that when we're eating a family dinner that I'm always the one to get up and get things for the kids, so I stopped doing it entirely. Now if my kids need something either my partner either just does it or I tell them that he'll do it and he gets it willing. That may seem rigid but I really don't want my boys growing up thinking it's normal for the women in their lives to be the ones to serve them. Maybe once we've established a new norm where my husband has internalized that it's his job then we can return to a more even split of this task but we're a bit away from that at this point.

    There's seems a lot of internet concern among mothers about judgment. Can you say why that is? Not that I think it's great to judge people but in general I rarely worry, or care, if people are judging me. I do think the calls from women towards other women to stop judging can be limiting because they silence provocative opinions. While I don't agree with Siebett, I think there is a more charitable reading of her article where she is arguing for a change to the norms without judging individual women who adhere to the current norm.

  8. Hi Cloud,

    I've been meaning to post this for a while and finally have the time. I did some work this year that exposed me to a new (to me0 area of research on work hours and productivity. There are people in business schools looking at how to motivate employees, and this PARTICULAR paper, which I'll link to, uses data from NSF surveys of Ph.D.s in academia and industry.

    I think you'll find it interesting because one of the results is that productivity, as measured by patents produced, peaks at 60 hours worked and falls off with any more hours. The ideal hours for scientists is somewhere between 45-60 hours per week. That's still hard to do with young children, but I think it's manageable with outside help.

    It's been published in the journal Management Science, but here's a freely available working copy:

    And for another example of a successful, high-powered mom, the head of the USGS was a professor at MIT, then in charge of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, all while raising three girls on her own.

  9. ^^^ I didn't mean for particular to come our in all caps like that, sorry.

  10. Great comments, as always, people.

    @GMP, my husband does his fair share and always has. I don't know why. And neither does he- when I ask him, he just says that it is obvious that he should

    @Zenmoo, I look forward to your rant!

    @caramama- YES. I'm sick of "work-life" balance being cast a problem only for working mothers. It is actually a problem for working PEOPLE. Until we frame it as such, we are unlikely to make much headway on solving it, I think.

    @scantee, it is never nice to feel judged, is it? But more seriously, I think people use judgement to try to control what other people do, and when enough people express a judgement, it can be very effective. Not everyone has the strength to fight the prevailing culture on all things. So we discuss the sources of judgement, because they can be some of the reasons that cultural expectations about gender roles are so slow to change.

    That's my opinion, anyway, mostly off the top of my head.

    And now I'm going to watch who gets up with my 4 yo asks for something at the dinner table. I know it isn't ALWAYS me, but I couldn't say if it is equal.

    @Becky- thanks for the reference! I'll have to go read it when I feel better. I know that my personal productivity drops off precipitously after about 50 hours/week. I can maintain 55 hour work weeks and be fully productive in all those hours for only a few weeks at a time.

    I think people don't always realize that productivity tails off and so try to push themselves more and more, bragging/complaining about the hours they work while actually getting less down than some of their colleagues who work more sane hours.

  11. Cloud,

    I've been reading your brilliant posts and comments at Historiann's and nicoleandmaggie's meaning to comment, but finding sleep more alluring... until tonight, at four minutes to midnight. Damn it, but that Karen Siebert aticle was infuriating. I read it when I came out, thought of posting something about it, decided to sleep... and then saw your post today. Yes, someone is wrong on the Internet--sleep be damned!

    The Siebert article reminds me of one of the harsh commenters on the Historiann post. Basically, there's just a complete lack of empathy with other women's choices and situations. The extreme pundits on both the "feminist left" (Siebert) and the conservative right (Phylis Schlafy, Caitlin Flanagan, etc) share this. One of the commenters on the Historiann post wrote of her own struggles to balance family and work when both she and her husband were working 60 hours a week at demanding jobs while trying to raise an infant. She found it unmanageable. I felt exhausted just reading about her struggle, and yet there we had some childless "feminist" commenter shrilly exclaiming that the first commenter should have manned up and kept working even at a job she hated because to not do so betrayed all of womanhood! And on the right, we have a complete lack of empathy from conservative writers who say that no caring mother would pursue a career outside the home when her children are young. Although they may make exceptions for those who need to work for economic reasons, they have no sympathy for a woman's desires to pursue professional interests/recognition outside the home... conveniently forgetting that they themselves, successful writers and pundits that they are, have fashioned careers outside the domestic sphere (Moreover, these women have often done so by depending heavily on hired domestic and childcare help, something else they often don't speak of--see Salon's article on Phylis Schlafy's unacknowledged dependence on nannies during her career). Anyway. It's just a rigid, judgemental stance at both extremes that refuses to look at the lives of other women--women different from themselves, women in different situations and with different needs and desires.

    Wait. Why are women picking on other women in the first place? Why are women--why are mothers--always to blame? The shortage of medical doctors (and my husband--who is a medical doctor--and I don't even really believe in this) is somehow all the fault of *mothers???*

    By the way, GMP, I'm sorry that your husband doesn't do as much in the home as you'd like. I can say that my husband definitely does his fair share. But I read a quote the other day: in a marriage, both partners can absolutely be doing 50% each, and yet also both feel that they're pulling 120% each. That's how I and my husband feel many days. We're both doing 50%, and yet we both often feel resentful of the other, and exhausted. It's just modern life, I think. And yes, it would be nicer to look at some of the structural underpinnings that make many professional women feel forced out their careers, rather than just blaming them for "opting out" and scaling down. NOT that there's anything wrong with that... if that's actually what they really wanted to do in the first place.

    Okay, I have more to rant on this subject... but it really is too late now, and I'm off to bed!

  12. Between that article on the one side and the blog post I just read claiming that I'm damaging my kid for life by working on the other, I'm pretty much over other people telling women how to run their careers, their families, and their lives.

    But more importantly, your last paragraph is the key. The reality is that flex time isn't something that is a woman's (mother or not) issue. It's a people issue. Male, female, young, old. I'm pretty sure the guy I work with whose wife has cancer would love flex options. Or the couple I work with whose 92 year old grandmother w/Alzheimers moved in with them. Or, you know what, any of the people who I work with regardless of their family situations.

  13. I finally got around to reading the NYT article. What annoyed me about it, as others have mentioned, was putting this burden on women- all those patients not being cared for? It's the lazy women's fault. This line sums it up:

    "It’s fair to ask them — women especially — to consider the conflicting demands that medicine and parenthood make before they accept (and deny to others) sought-after positions in medical school and residency".

    It seems like IF there really is a global shortage of primary care doctors, as implied by the article, possible solutions include a) train more doctors and b) require that doctors work more hours. These are institutional solutions. Why should individual women, taking their rightful advantage of flexible work arrangements, have to bear all the burden of the doctor shortage??

  14. Anonymous5:01 AM

    @Ginger... don't forget the Atlantic article that just came out that says by not damaging your kids, you're damaging their adulthood!

    That fits very well with my mom's "character building" philosophy. As a kid I often griped that my character was far too buff already.

  15. ps @Becky, Marcia McNutt ROCKS!!

  16. @The bean-mom - That is the heart of the problem, isn't it? Lack of empathy/sympathy! Sometimes it's even from people who have been through it. It reminds me of the whole idea of hazing for fraternities and sororities. "I had to go through that hell, therefore anyone else who wants to joing has to go through it to!" I never understood that mentality, but it sure does exist.

    @zed - I would actually offer these as institutional changes: a) allow MORE flexible hours, job sharing, more time off, and more flexible arrangements so that more people will be willing to go through the rigorous training process and take demanding positions; b) train more doctors since there should be more available.


    Also, I don't think high pay is everything. If the salaries of doctors is going down, then the smart solution IMO is to offer other benefits to doctors so that the best and brightest still find that career field desirable.

  17. I call BS on Sibert's false dichotomy between "a part-time interest" and "a life's work." Ever heard of the old boy doctor taking Wednesdays off to play golf? Lots of docs technically work PT - always have! ITA with @scantee: "Since most "part-time" physicians work hours that most would consider full-time I think her argument is not going to hold sway with people who feel the hour requirements of professional, salaried jobs ever increasing and onerus." (Oh, and as an aside, she lost me the minute she mentioned baked goods -- what the eff does that have to do with the price of tea in China?!)

    I have a handful of amazing female MD friends in the exact lifestyle category Sibert critiques (sample size = 10), all of whom either trained in peds or GP, and are married to male doctors who are either cardiologists, orthopods, or general surgeons. All of them have between 2 and 4 children. Eight of them work PT (2 or 3 days a week roughly 8am-5pm probably longer), and 2 of them have left medicine entirely to be SAHM. I see not a damn thing wrong with any of their choices. In fact, I think they are all pretty effing smart, and have figured out that these are the most efficient work-life choices available to them, given the constraints of our patriarchal society today.

    I think the so-called "solutions" to these "problems" Sibert thinks she sees is obvious. If America wants more doctors, lower the opportunity costs of obtaining a medical education, and increase the supply of spots in training programs. Tort reform. Insurance reform. Get rid of the organic chemistry pre-reqs that knock so many undergrads out of premed, etc etc.

    Deal with some of the social reasons women might be choosing more family-friendly specialties while at the same time choosing male partners who are selecting supposedly more-demanding specialties (assuming my 10 friends are representative of current trends). Figure out why the smart, 2-doctor families with kids are organizing themselves this way. My guess is because it is the only way that really works. So where's the actual problem in that??

  18. I find it pretty shocking that I can read that sort of article and feel almost convinced by it (while feeling very subconsciously irritated) and have to have someone else explain to my why it is a problem. I'm pretty highly educated. I should really be able to figure this stuff out for myself, and yet the rhetoric gets me. So frustrating. Thank you for linking the article and helping me understand the problem with it!

  19. Anonymous11:58 AM

    @Today Wendy-- Check out our blog post tomorrow (Tuesday) on getting the "why" behind the irritation.

    captcha code: lacted (I've done that! well, lactated anywya)

  20. Ok, I'm back to rant now.

    First, to declare my interest in this – I’m married to a doctor. I met him the summer before he started med school. Twelve and a half years later, we’re on the home stretch of his speciality training (less than 2 and a half years to go!).

    What really annoyed me about the tone of the Siebert article was summed up in the last line: “Patients need doctors to take care of them. Medicine shouldn’t be a part-time interest to be set aside if it becomes inconvenient; it deserves to be a life’s work.”

    Well, I call bullshit on that – for men AND women. Yes, patients need doctors to take care of them.


    I fail to see why that means inhumanely long hours are necessary. What does working 13 days straight, including four 8am to 10.30pm shifts add to patient care? (Yes, that was his very first two weeks working as a doctor)

    I fail to see why that means taking time out of your training to travel, or have a baby, or write a novel – is discouraged. We had a two month honeymoon in southern Africa, DK had to resign, take a contract job at another hospital and then ask to be re-hired after the trip. Me, I just asked my boss for unpaid leave and it was granted. Like it was granted to pretty much everyone else who asked for unpaid leave.

    I certainly fail to see why it should be so freaking difficult to take a day off when you, the doctor, are sick. I’ve watched the rigmarole the husband has to go through to take the day off when he’s sick and it is ridiculously difficult (which he’s done precisely twice in the seven years he’s been working – and once this year he’s taken part of the day off so he could look after a sick Moo while I went to work.)

    In that context, the woman questioning Siebert was absolutely right to be asking what the lifestyle of anaesthetics was like. Lifestyle was a key consideration for my husband in his selection of speciality. Why shouldn’t it be?

    The article also burns for me because it is precisely the sort of bullshit that perpetuates the attitude I get from my family and his family and sometimes other people of “oh, well, you’ve just got to live with the impact on your life because that’s what medicine is like and he should be looked after because his job is so worthy” etc (with the clear subtext that what I do isn’t as important). ARRRGGGGHHH!!! It’s a job! He does it because it’s interesting and he likes helping people. That doesn’t make him a better person than me! I do my job because it’s interesting and I like helping people. Frankly, my organisation does just as much for day to day, wider public health as the hospital he works at. We make sure tap water is clean and safe to drink and we dispose of sewage safely. And, for gods sake – on an hourly rate, I STILL get PAID more than he does. I just work fewer hours.

    Anyway, some of this rantiness is definitely linked to the personal impact his career has had on my life. In particular, I’m still not really comfortable with the impact it has had on having children. I accept delaying it until he finished exams one year, and delaying trying for number to two to avoid another set was the best idea because he can’t be as supportive as he wants to be when he’s trying to work and study. But it doesn’t make me happy.

    Anyway, in the story of my life, Moo has woken up again and my rant must end…


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