Does flexibility at work come with a price?

Categories: Career, The Juggle, Working? Living?


My husband and I both work for the same company. We spent years working opposite shifts, one of us at night and the other during the day, and trading off with the kids in the middle. About a year and a half ago, he got an offer he couldn’t resist, for a great multimedia job with daytime hours, and for the first time ever we had to deal with childcare.

We found a preschool and a daycare that the little kids love. I got over the working-mom guilt. (Well, sort of. Most days.) My husband and I agreed that I’d take the kids to care in the mornings and then head to work, trying to be home, if not in time for dinner, then definitely by bedtime. He would get up insanely early in the morning and work until 3, leaving him plenty of time to beat traffic and pick the kids up by 4:30. At least, that was the plan.

Guess what happens in real life?

In real life, I get the kids up and dressed and fed and packed and to school and daycare, then head on over to the office, usually making it in around 10 or 10:30 a.m. Which means that, since I always work through lunch, I’m clear to leave around 6:30 without a problem.

He gets up insanely early, gets to work, and then, sometimes,  calls me or sends me an IM around 4 p.m. saying that he’s stuck in a meeting or has to shoot or edit video and can we switch? Sometimes, to be honest, I notice how swamped he is with work and I offer before he can ask. Daycare doesn’t close until 6, but it’s near home, which, during rush-hour traffic, is about 90 minutes away. I ask my supervisor who, thank God, has a child of her own and has done the daycare juggle and knows what I’m up against and doesn’t get mad at me, glance apologetically at my other colleagues, and scurry for the door. Leaving early is like shooting a flare into the night, and I know what my childless coworkers and the ones with stay-at-home wives are thinking, because once upon a time, I thought that, too: Slacker.

This aspect of working-mom guilt, I haven’t gotten over.

I read an article in The Boston Globe yesterday, about the work-life juggle for people with disabled children, and was struck by a quote from Julie Rosenzweig, a researcher: “A lot of parents won’t disclose this because of the fear of stigma, not wanting to be perceived as different or unreliable,” she told the Globe. “They will take jobs that step out of their career, skip over promotions, turn down travel opportunities.”

It’s a fear that applies to most parents who work outside of the home, I suspect, but I’m willing to bet that more working moms feel this way than working dads. Just last week, when I had to cut my work day short because of yet another daycare crisis, I apologized to my supervisor and she said, kindly, “It’s OK. I’ve been there. You’re the Mom. That’s the way it is.”

But is that the way it should be?

I’m very, very lucky to have a good amount of flexibility at work right now. But the fact is, it came at a price: I’ve been with the company for nearly 15 years, I took a less-challenging position there after our now-4-year-old was born so that I could have more family-friendly hours, I routinely log in time from home because I can’t put in the long, late hours needed to go far in my field, and promotions are out of the question. I am, career-wise, Not Where I Expected to Be By Now.

But I have the flexibility I need to take care of my family.

I’m definitely OK with the choice I made. But I’m not always OK with the fact that I had to make it.

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3 comments so far...

  • I think flexibility does come at a price. I work at a very flexible job that I am very good at and really enjoy. But, it’s not the career I always dreamed of. I’ve accepted the fact (almost) that I will never have the high-powered law career I wanted. Because I chose this path of shorter work days, no travel, lots of time off, and flexibilty… because I believe it’s better for my daughter. I’m not unfufilled. But I am “Not Where I Expected to Be By Now.” I’m also only 30. You never know what will happen. Right?

    Robyn  |  December 15th, 2008 at 12:09 pm

  • My dad used to be the one with flexibility to handle child-oriented emergencies / scheduling issues. He worked 8-4 plus whatever overtime he could get, but when someone needed to take time off, he did it. Mainly because (a) he had more time off and (b) he had the car while my mom commuted to work by bus. This was 30-35 years ago. In short, it doesn’t have to be “the woman” who makes the “sacrifices.” It’s whatever makes sense in a given situation.

    If there’s an emergency, I personally would prefer to be there. But if there is merely a need to have someone available to shuttle the kids from place to place at a certain hour, is it possible to find a neighbor or nearby college student who could be on call for such a possibility? Seems a lot less stressful than having to drop everything at work on short notice.

    But back to your original question - yeah, flexibility comes with a price. Put another way, it’s worth it to your employer and colleagues to pay more for someone whose schedule is more reliable. To me, it’s worth it to take a cut in pay - and I’ve taken a pretty big one myself - because the alternative is overwork and stress.

    SKL  |  December 15th, 2008 at 2:02 pm

  • I, too, get the short end of the stick when it comes to being the one to call in when the kids are sick, leave work early when there is a problem, etc. It makes sense because I am closer to school, can work from home, and just have a better situation at work, but there are plenty of times I resent it all the same.

    Natalie  |  December 16th, 2008 at 4:57 pm