Why It’s So Hard to Make Work and Family Mesh

Company policies and cultures don’t always lend themselves to family-friendly policies.

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The recession seems to have done to workplace flexibility what it did to casual Fridays: Killed it. Because when workers are grateful to have their jobs, they’re not about to ask for special privileges. A new survey out this week from the Center for Work Life Policy confirms that the recession has made it harder for women to take a break from the workforce, with greater numbers reporting salary decreases and loss of responsibility upon their return.

[Slideshow: 10 Ways to Make Any Job Healthier

All week, I’ve been reporting on the new survey while juggling my own work-life issues. My seven-month-old daughter has had a hard time adjusting to life in daycare; not only does she seem to have separation anxiety whenever she is away from me, but she’s been sick constantly, most recently with bronchitis.

So I don’t take this work-life balance talk lightly. I know that some flexibility for workers – for both moms and dads – can be crucial to getting work done. The only reason I’ve been able to report and write while my daughter is sick is because I can work from home sometimes, my parents and husband help with childcare, and my boss understands when I suddenly need to run out to the pediatrician’s office. Even with all that, it’s still not easy.

But there are ways to make it easier, and they mostly fall into two categories: First, choosing a workplace with flexibility – true flexibility, not just in name. “In some companies, there is a culture that is so driven, that you daren’t even ask for this stuff,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of The Center for Work Life Policy and author of the groundbreaking Creating a Life. During a recession, in particular, no one wants to be labeled as someone who doesn’t take her career seriously. So that means when you’re looking for a job, you want to somehow figure out if you’re getting yourself into a cut-throat, E-mails-get-sent-at-3am kind of workplace, or a more low-key, as-long-as-you-get-your-work-done-it’s-fine kind of environment.

That can be tricky, because some workplaces have good policies on the books that fail to pan out in practice. That’s why we get strange situations such as the one at Novartis, which has been on Working Mother’s 100 best companies list while being found guilty of gender discrimination in federal court. So doing research before taking a job, by talking to other employees or, even better, former employees, can be the only way to get insight into the true family-friendliness of an operation.

The second way is to be more assertive and not feel guilty when you have to leave in the middle of a meeting in order to get to daycare before it closes. One of the most successful working moms I know, Lindsay Androski Kelly, made this point when I interviewed her about how she manages her own high-powered career as a lawyer while being the mother of two young children. She says she sometimes has to excuse herself from meetings early, and not worry about whether her colleagues resent it.

Kelly works extremely hard, often rising at 5am in order to meet her clients’ needs, but she also makes every effort to be home by 6pm and frequently works from home. (She also specifically asked about family-friendly work options while she was interviewing at different law firms.)

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Regardless of the technique used, finding a way to successfully mesh work and family has become more important than ever, since the recession has underscored the importance of women’s jobs. The survey by the Center for Work Life Policy found that in 2009, women were 28 percent more likely to have a husband who wasn’t working than they were five years ago, and four in ten working women out-earned their spouses. Since so many women earn such an essential chunk of their families’ budgets, not working or even taking a break often isn’t an option.

If you feel like you need additional support, here are some useful resources for working moms. At the very least, they let you know that you’re not alone:

  • The Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle blog offers a personal look at everything from breastfeeding at the office to child care issues.
  • BlueSuitMom.com provides advice on motherhood, money, and careers to working moms.
  • Alpha Mom features videos and blogs on motherhood and child-rearing.
  • Mothers & More connects mothers who are taking a break from the workforce while they are caring for children.
  • WorkOptions.com, through articles and proposal templates, offers advice on negotiating a flexible work schedule.
  • MomsRising organizes mothers (and fathers) interested in advocating for family-friendly policies.
  • Workitmom.com helps you stay organized with tips and suggestions.
  • Mommytracked.com lets you commiserate with other working mamas and dish on pop culture.
  • If you have your own favorite working mom websites, please suggest them below.