In the months before my first son was born in 2007, I contemplated many things. One big one: how does “maternity leave” work when you’re self-employed? After talking with a number of self-employed moms, I came to the conclusion (as I wrote about in a HuffPo piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-vanderkam/when-you-work-for-yoursel_b_49901.html) that I should be prepared to work some, and realize that I was OK with that.
People wrote me, aghast: “Just wait until you have the baby!” Well, I had the baby, and the only thing that was wrong about that op-ed was the “some.” By the time I had my second son two years later, I didn’t even bother thinking about what my leave would look like. I turned in the draft of my latest book, 168 Hours (http://www.my168hours.com/blog), shortly after he was born. For me, it wasn’t a question of needing to maintain cash flow, something I know I am very privileged to be able to write. I simply realized that I loved my work, and was happiest when I was spending roughly 8 hours per day doing it.
Of course, the big thing that made such postpartum productivity possible is that I work from home and set my own hours. I could nurse my baby while editing documents – no more disruptive for family life than, say, nursing while watching TV. I could nap or work while someone else cared for him (I know better than to work from home without childcare), and work while he was asleep.
But my own experience has made me think that the larger cultural conversation about work and life is missing two important points.
First, when we hear “work-life balance,” many people hear this as code for moms wanting to work part-time. Indeed, many moms do want to work part-time (though I believe such a schedule is overrated, as I wrote recently for USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-05-11-column11_ST_N.htm, and part-time tracks are always going to be a hard sell to employers). But a lot of us don’t. Everyone’s fit is different, and for me, when I think in terms of the 168 hours we all have each week, working 40-50, sleeping 56, and having 62-72 hours for other things sounds far more balanced than working 20. Indeed, in the course of interviewing successful people for 168 Hours, I met several professional women whose entrance into motherhood prompted them to work more. They wanted to advance their careers to the point where they had more control of their lives, and made more money – something, incidentally, that children need.
The key for ambitious moms, or for anyone really, is work situations that treat us like grown-ups. Take time off the day before a presentation is due to go to a 10AM school birthday party, and you make the time up at 10PM. Simple as that.
And second, as a related point, if people can work virtually when they need to, on their own schedule (as I do), this is not really an accommodation. In many cases, it’s a brilliant way to get people to work more. I doubt I’d have been hard at work a few days after giving birth if I’d had to report to a cubicle. Likewise, when you work virtually, you can work when you’re sick and work (some) when your kids are sick. You can work when you would be commuting. A recent study from Brigham Young University and IBM (http://news.byu.edu/archive10-jun-telecommuting.aspx) found that when people could work from home sometimes, they could work 57 hours per week before a significant number felt work-family conflict. The cubicle-bound experienced such stress at 38 hours. In case anyone needs help with the math, 38 is less than 57. Fifty percent less, in fact, usually without an employer coughing up any more money.
To be sure, not all jobs can be done remotely even some of the time, nor does every mom want to work 50 hours per week. But if the former became more of the norm, at least in professional or corporate positions, you’d see a lot more women willing to do the latter. Which would hopefully change the whole conversation from women wanting to work less to lots of us wanting to and figuring out ways to work differently – which is more of a win-win for all involved.