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Secrets of successful 'Stay-At-Work Moms'

Book by author Wendy Sachs offers strategies for moms who wish to continue working after having kids. Read an excerpt.

While some mothers are opting out of their careers, millions more can't afford to make that choice, or they choose to continue working because they thrive on it. How these moms navigate working and raising children is the subject of a new book by author Wendy Sachs, "How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-At-Work Moms." Sachs, who has two young children and works as a freelance television producer, was invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:

Identity Crisis: Diapers vs. Briefs
Upon giving birth to my son three and a half years ago, I was quickly initiated into the cult of mommyhood.  Part of the rite of passage in this postpartum society is to enter a parallel universe, a highly social and active world where moms and babies spend their days hustling around to a wide array of classes, lunches and playgroup gatherings.  When my son was six weeks old we joined organized “New Mommy” lunches that took place at various New York City restaurants.  For $20, moms bonded over sore nipples and poopy diapers, swapped dramatic tales of labor and delivery and shared tips on which infant gas remedy worked best.  As we sat around the tables, feeding and burping our crying newborns, guest speakers would talk to us about important matters such as the benefits of baby massage and the surprising fat-burning efficiency of Strollercize. 

It was here where I met my first mommy friends — a lactating sorority of out-of-shape, exhausted women who, like me, were simply looking for sisterly support as we all struggled to survive those brutal first few months of motherhood.  The women at these lunches had an impressive collective resume.  They were lawyers, psychologists, engineers, financial analysts, social workers, marketing and advertising executives.  Many had graduated from some of the elite universities in this country.  So when talk turned to life after maternity leave, I was surprised to discover that only two women were returning to work.  One was going back to her full-time job as a credit analyst at a Wall Street financial institution, and my friend Sue, a school psychologist, planned to return part-time after taking a year of maternity leave off from the school system where she worked.  Some of the other women initially agonized about whether or not to return to their careers.  One mom even saw a therapist to hash out her anxieties.  She has since had another baby and has decided to stay home — at least for now. 

At that time, I had recently left my job as an associate producer at Dateline NBC to work at an Internet start-up.  I had been wooed by stock options and the ability to work from home.  But my company was on the verge of imploding as the dot-com bubble was bursting and I was itching to go back into television, a career I had truly adored.  I had thrived on the rip of adrenaline breaking news gave me — the chase, the conquest, the addictive feeling of being a part of history. 

On September 11, 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, my infant son, Jonah, was sleeping soundly on me, molded to my chest.  While I watched the towers crumble on TV and smelled my delicious baby on top of me, I suddenly felt conflicted.  I wanted desperately to be covering the story, the biggest news event of our generation.  As the story evolved over the next few weeks, I started speaking to former colleagues about freelancing for NBC.  They needed additional bodies and I wanted to sign up.  But how could I leave my infant for what would have been long days, if not weeks on end? 

For the next few months I continued to grapple with how I could go back into television.  I was on the outskirts of this historic event and I couldn’t stand it.  Instead of field producing in Afghanistan, I was breastfeeding at Starbucks.  For the first time ever my clear career path was suddenly as opaque as the Calvin Klein tights I used to wear to work.  Had motherhood permanently obstructed my Big Career plans? 

Many of the moms I initially met couldn’t really relate to my growing restlessness.  They had made peace with their decision to stay home and were getting settled into their routines of fulltime at-home mommyhood.   As I became more antsy, they seemed more content.  Part of me envied them for being so thrilled with motherhood and not appearing to need more.  And part of me was simply bothered by their satisfaction.  I just didn’t get it.  I found myself getting sucked into traditional stereotypes of what defines a “Good Mother” and I began fearing that I simply wasn’t good enough.  If I were good enough, I figured, I should be relishing motherhood, not feeling a relentless churning for something more. 

It was at this time that the inspiration for this book evolved.  I was shocked to discover that so many smart, talented women were dropping out of the work force or “opting out” as New York Times writer Lisa Belkin called it.  We’re the women who were raised in an environment where anything was supposed to be possible.  We’re the ones who had the doors to advancement jimmied open for us to waltz through, so why were so many women turning on their heels and leaving once they became mothers?  Had all of these women embraced their inner Marthas and discovered domestic bliss and fulfillment in baking the perfect linzer tortes as some headlines suggest?  I felt desperate to find moms who weren’t dropping out but staying in — and I was equally desperate to discover how were they doing it all.

As I wrestled with what to do, I looked for support — beyond the “New Mommy” group — and asked other women about how they handled this tricky work-family quandary.  When I shared my concerns about how to have a fantastic career and still be a great mommy, I found that I wasn’t alone.  While some moms seemed genuinely happy to take a mid-career sabbatical because they both wanted to and could afford to stay at home, many more women I met were, like myself, feeling anxious because they too wanted to work and were trying to figure out how to merge their career with motherhood.  The “balance” everyone talks about, that Holy Grail for working moms, was much more nuanced and complicated than we had ever anticipated.  The dirty truth that no one wants to admit is that the world works against the Stay-at-Work mom.  We were led to believe that career women could gracefully maneuver motherhood into already bustling lives.  But ask any new mom and we’re simply stumbling along blindly trying to stay afoot, to please everyone, and to make sense of our suddenly conflicted identities.  Every mother I met seemed desperate to hear about how other women strike that precarious balance in their lives between motherhood and career.  How do they do it?  What are the tradeoffs?  How do they handle the inevitable conflicts?  How do they reconcile the guilt?  How do they come to terms with their own ambition?  Are they happy?  Is there anything they regret?  What are the options out there?

Despite growing up at a time when more and more women worked, we had few examples showing us how we were going to succeed at being both great moms and women with fabulous careers.  Ours was the generation who grew up and came of age watching The Cosby Show’s smiling Claire Huxtable, the witty, tough mother of five who allegedly worked full-time as a lawyer but was always around for dinner and endless chit chat.  She never seemed stressed or fried from work.  She never bitched about clients or mentioned that she couldn’t make it to Rudy’s ballet recital or Theo’s soccer game because of a grueling caseload.  But as we’ve all now learned, The Cosby Show epitomized the idyllic family sitcom, not reality TV.  So how are real women doing it?   

What We Really WantThe topic of Stay-at-Work Moms vs. Stay-at-Home Moms is an explosive one.  It strikes at the very nerve center of who we are as women and as mothers.  It taps into our personal insecurities and unfairly forces us to respond to society’s expectations both in the workforce and at home.  It challenges our priorities and identities and it sometimes leaves us feeling as if we simply can’t win.  While much has been made about our generation expecting and wanting to “have it all,” women today are redefining what “all” means.  For women today, definitions of “success” have more to do with job satisfaction and flexibility than with prestige and position.  Women want to be respected and compensated fairly in our jobs even if we work three or four days a week at the office.  We want flextime, part-time and job-share to be viewed not as a privilege but as an integral part of the work culture.  We want the freedom to amp up when we are ready and to cut back if we need to slow things down. 

Because we often learn best through the prism of other women’s experiences I’ve chosen to share the stories of dozens of Stay-at-Work mothers, both ordinary and well known, who can inspire us and teach us the lessons they have learned along their journey of motherhood.  The famous moms I have profiled each have life experiences that make them role models for the rest of us.  Yes, many of their lives are privileged and undeniably made easier because they are financially able to afford more help.  But all of these women have something special to contribute that makes them real and relevant to regular women.  And perhaps what’s most important about the “celebrity” mothers is that while they can afford to not work, they choose to work.   We will hear from moms about how to deal with the crunch of work and family, how to assuage the inevitable guilt, how to find the courage to switch careers, how to get what you need, even in an unfriendly family work environment, and how to ultimately find that comfortable work-family ratio we are all hoping to achieve. 

For two years I have interviewed and surveyed more than one hundred women.  My interviews do not represent a scientific sampling.  It’s what sociologists call the “snowball” method.  I spoke to my friends and friends of friends.  I met with working mother groups and I sent out surveys across the country.  I spoke to women on playgrounds and at pre-school and even in my pediatrician’s office.  I talked to women in coffee shops, dog runs and at birthday parties.  The women I met crossed ethnic, racial, religious and regional lines.  Most are married and all have college degrees.  Author Peggy Orenstein says that “having a college education is crucial to the architecture of the female self.”  It makes sense that a college education is instrumental in giving women the ability to create opportunities for themselves.  So I wanted to talk to the generation of women who grew up believing that they had lots of options and that if they went to school, did well and worked hard enough, anything was possible. 

The women who I interviewed grew up all over the country but at the time I spoke to them they lived in Portland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, Minneapolis, Miami, New York and its suburbs, and the Washington, DC area.  In some instances, at the request of the women I interviewed, I have changed names and those of the companies where they work.  While my research was not scientific, it yielded thematic results.  It is in using these themes that I have structured the book.  

For me, this project began as a rather selfish journey.  When I started, my son was a toddler.  Having endured four months of colic with a baby who sapped all of my energy, and missing life in TV, I was anxious to resume my broadcasting career and do some interesting work again.  I was prepared to work full time.  I was even ready to travel.   But two years after I began this project my son is three and a half and I also now have an eighteen-month-old daughter.  I’ve found that as my family has grown, my priorities keep shifting.  The thought of extensive traveling for work is no longer appealing.  The hours of most network TV jobs are equally daunting.  I now feel that dropping my son off at pre-school and watching him learn how to kick a goal on the soccer field on a Monday afternoon is as important to me as producing a story with NBC’s Stone Phillips.  I see time racing by and I want to be able to savor more of those fleeting moments.  This does not mean that I don’t want to work.  It just means that I want to redefine what it is that I’m doing and how I can do it.  

I walk away from this book realizing that there is no right or wrong way of satisfying the dual desires of career and motherhood.  Similarly, there is no perfect formula and no one-size-fits-all solution because our needs as mothers are not static — they change over time and vary considerably amongst women.  But what I’ve found is that all of us want more options — various ways to integrate our families with our careers.  Women don’t have to feel stuck at the intersection of career and motherhood.  We need to continue demanding change in the workforce while creating even more opportunities for ourselves.  I use the term Stay-at-Work Moms because this book is about women who have chosen to stay in the workforce.  Yes, most Stay-at-Work Moms also financially need their income to pay their bills and afford their lifestyles, but everyone in this book is also working because they want to have a career.  Our careers help define us, they make us feel complete, they enhance our well being and our relationships and give us a more secure financial future.  It is my hope that by reading the stories and experiences in this book, moms will find solutions and options for themselves to inspire and empower them in their quest to have at least some of it — all of the time. 

Excerpted from “How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-At-Work Moms.” Copyright © 2005 by Wendy Sachs. Published by Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.