Balancing Work & Family Leads Mothers to Unemployment

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Being a working parent is hard. Being a working parent when your child has special needs is nearly impossible. And Stressful. And Expensive.

If someone would have told me back in my 20’s that motherhood was going to set my career on fire, burn it to the ground, and take a piece of my marriage with it, I’d have risen to that challenge with ambition to prove everyone wrong. I always thought I was the kind of person that could do anything, solve any problem, or mend any situation…until I failed at this.

For almost eleven years, I worked for a big company (a “boys club”) in a route-based sales position with no structured workday, set hours, or schedule. This particular company kept chanting to our entrepreneurial spirits about owning our territory and business. Over the years, I survived three changes of ownership and two massive layoffs, led the country in e-com adoptions, and beat an entire sales team in gross profit and revenue performance. Often, I was a role model to my peers and not only led but authored training materials and best practices. Since the anti-sugar revolution kicked in, business declined steadily over a decade and left limited advancement opportunities. The company was always downsizing and eliminating roles, departments, and people. It felt like whenever I moved up a step, the company would start cutting heads within that year and we would all end up back where we started and many of our best people faded away, especially women.

I eventually found myself in an existential crisis about what my role meant and how I could make an impact on the world, since clinging to a steady pay check and four weeks of vacation time just wasn’t fulfilling. That was when a client of mine, a college, offered me a class to teach. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I should teach, I’d be retired by now. This was it, this was going to be my calling. My something else that I did for me. My passion project. It barely paid anything so it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to help people and I needed more in my life than a seemingly dead-end career that paid well. This was going to fulfill me, and nourish that void over-educated millennials often feel in an outdated workplace.

Once we have children, we no longer go to work for ourselves. We no longer follow dreams unless they come with a guaranteed salary because we have mouths to feed. As a woman who makes less than her husband, I feel like my career happiness doesn’t even matter. It feels like women just need a paycheck that doesn’t conflict with school schedules, holidays, making dinner, or paying for things our children need. Since I am the mom, it is automatically my burden. My responsibility. My plate to carry. My job to figure out how to balance it all…

Does anyone ever ask a working father how he does it all? How he balances a career AND a family?

My husband has a physically demanding job and works long hours. When he gets home, often late, he wants to unwind and play his guitar. He doesn’t get caught up in chores or children. His entire workday isn’t dictated by childcare and school schedules. But mine is.
I don’t blame my husband for this. We work in completely different industries with different expectations. He is a field technician and has a Bachelors degree in engineering. He makes his living on overtime; he also plays in a band as his side-gig. My career was in sales and marketing, and I used my terminal Master’s degree to teach college courses early in the morning before work. It seems like everyone these days has more than one job just to keep up with the cost of living. Or maybe we’re just addicted to being busy. Having a “paycheck job” and a “fun job” seemed to make it worth the struggle of keeping up in an unaffordable state like NJ.

Early on, It was rough adjusting to motherhood and just one career. I drove almost an hour to daycare to drop off a 3-month-old and headed to my work territory nearby. Since my husband’s work-provided vehicle didn’t have a back seat, he couldn’t help me and we didn’t live near family. I timed my daughter’s feedings for the car ride and hoped she didn’t scream, poop, or spit up on the way. Then there was coming home to make dinner, bathe my child, and do household chores all before getting a moment to relax. Luckily, we moved right after her first birthday to an area in close proximity to lots of daycare centers.

Living closer to work and dropping a child off three-minutes from home was life-changing. Such a weight had been lifted. My husband could even help and sometimes I was even able to have a few minutes to myself alone in the house before daycare pick-up. Or just go home and clean the house without a toddler following me around making messes. That is probably what I miss most — an hour to myself. Those rare days when daycare was open and work was closed. A day here and there to catch up.

The biggest stress when your child is in daycare is a combination of getting notes sent home, worrying about getting sick, and needing to take off from work. I was so hesitant back then to visit bounce houses during flu season or worried my daughter would break a bone at the trampoline park because it would mean I’d have to miss work and lose time, credibility, and face the cold shoulder of my direct manager. It seems crazy right? But that was the easy stuff. I’d give anything to only worry about those things anymore. Just before she was 3, my daughter got kicked out of daycare repeatedly for a variety of reasons ranging from behavior to needing too much attention and not taking naps.

When we found ourselves out of daycare, this is when the impossibility of balancing it all hit me the hardest and we had to hire a nanny. When a child has a disability like autism, finding the right person to watch your child is difficult. People hear the word autism and they bail, even when your child is only 4. Those that stick around are also going to nickel and dime you to death because they assume that either you have it or they deserve to be paid more. Which they do to a point but I can’t help but think about the fairness in the end. I don’t make more money because my child has autism so why should it cost me more? I didn’t choose this life. Having a child with a disability is not a result of some bad choice we made. It can happen to anyone.

What complicated our childcare situation most was her 2.5-hour public preschool program that runs from 12:30–3pm. Finding someone to watch a child, even a typical child, from 8 am until noon, and then again from 3 pm until after 5 pm is impossible. We found an incredible nanny for the morning hours but since she did not live in town, it did not make sense for her to come back at 3pm without just staying and getting paid through that 3-hour break. But how on Earth could that work? When I did the math, I couldn’t pay someone for one day what daycare had cost for an entire week. I knew it would be more but 5x more was not doable let alone something we could consider since it would cost less for me to just stop working. I also received zero responses to my afternoon care ads. So I had a pep talk with myself and said, “SELF — you finished college in 3 years and graduated with honors at twenty while working two jobs. You can do this. You got this!”

And so I took on this challenge of balancing it all because I had never failed at anything before. I left at the crack of dawn while my husband waited for the nanny to arrive and was back to get her off the bus myself, and would complete the rest of my work from home. With this option, I only needed the nanny for 4.5 hours per day which was expensive but doable on the right budget. The countdown to Kindergarten was less than 9 months away so this wasn’t going to be permanent.

Even though I was beyond exhausted and was dead asleep by 9 pm every night, this was the only time I ever felt like I had everything under control. I had a helper at home while I hustled at work, taught my classes, and kept to my tight schedule. I even came home every day to a clean house, with dishes done and laundry was folded.

When I got home, I usually started dinner or threw something in the crockpot while I waited for the bus and then went back to my administrative work while my daughter napped. On days she didn’t nap, she was content doing puzzles at the table or playing with her toys in the next room. It was genius and life was working.

I had finally figured out how to balance career and family — the secret ingredient was not separating the two. My job was my other kid. Work was not something that could be done consecutively for me as a mother. I had to piece our day together around the needs of our family, our passions, and our children.

And I did, even outperforming my peers. If and when a client needed me or my company held a meeting, I made arrangements on those days, even in the late afternoons, never sacrificing the integrity of my primary job.

About 5 weeks into my newfound glory of conquering the clock, I continued to maintain my throne as a top-performer at the big company. I was on top of the world. My manager (who was fully aware of what I was doing) even called me into another special meeting for which I served on a committee for, lead training on, and shared best practices for. I was thrilled to help again and made arrangements to attend the meeting. But something was off. When I entered the room, I was bombarded by HR and this was not another leadership opportunity for me. I was being suspended for stealing time. No warning. No interest in how it was working. Suspended, indefinitely. It was worse than being stabbed in the back, it was like a hit was put on me because I found the keys to the front door of a building instead of breaking in through a window. Maybe I was supposed to ring the doorbell? Where would I be if I did? It looked grim as they failed to understand me.

Even my direct supervisor, who was also a mother of young children juggling the same bricks, got on board their crazy train. I sat there as she avoided eye contact and pretended she never supported me. They called my success a “failure to follow policies” (policies that no one could provide copies of or confirm the existence of because the thing about Big Companies like this one is that they operate under constant ambiguity).

The most confusing part was how ambiguous our work schedule was to begin with. We didn’t have work hours so how could I be stealing them? When I tried to explain my secret formula to help women conquer the workplace they didn’t even care about my increased productivity, how my gross profit stood mountains over my peers, or how I mastered time management. It all came down to one thing: I did not work an 8-hour day consecutively. There was also no policy on record saying we even had to work consecutively. But they couldn’t see past it. They clung to their outdated ideologies.

And so I quit . The photo they slapped onto the table of my daughter getting off of the school bus stood vivid in my mind. My husband was furious but I didn’t have a choice. This wasn’t working and I couldn’t do it anymore.

For women to manage a career and a family, the flexibility to overlap, multitask, and manage time is going to matter.

Non-consecutive work days are critical for mothers of young children to succeed. We need to be allowed to juggle, and we’re good at it. We can’t be a mother for only 16 hours per day nor can we be an employee without being mothers when we’re mothers.

Compartmentalizing our lives doesn’t always work. With how far technology has brought work into our homes, keeping us constantly connected to our jobs — to their benefit, our work life intrudes on our personal time. And that’s okay if and when employers understand that our family will also intrude on their time. I can’t stop being a mother for 8 hours per day and I can’t stop being an employee because I’m a mother. I also can’t stop caring about my passions and hobbies between being an employee and a parent. Work, life, and family are not parallel lines, they are an algorithm of human multi-tasking that entwines our entire being.

Having been a lesser-employed mom now for a few months, I have learned that being a “SAHM” is just as stressful as balancing a full-time career and a passion project, and to never waste my talent somewhere it isn’t appreciated. And never compromise your children for a paycheck. Getting to reconnect with my daughter has been a priceless experience that has finally pulled me out of the tornado of trying to be everything, do everything, and chase that forbidden fairytale of work-life balance.

Goodbye consecutive workday, we’re through. It’s almost 2019 and we can do better.

New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the nation: 1 in 34 children. A recent study by The Journal of Pediatrics calculated the current autism rate in the United States is 1 in 40 children (150 million children aged 3–17). That’s just one disability. CDC statistics from 2016 estimated that Developmental Disabilities are on the rise at 6.99%, up from 2011 when prevalence was 1 in 6 children. Being a working mother of a typical child is hard these days, add a disability and its become impossible. A child with a disability can happen to anyone. Working parents need to be able to work in ways that make sense with the time!

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