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A Mother’s Work

by Christina Paciolla

Whether they’re staying home with the kids or logging long hours at the office, South Jersey moms share one thing: a gnawing sense of guilt that they’re not doing enough. Has the rocky job market made our community more accepting of parents on the go, or has it only made things more difficult?

Stacey Weldon understands the conundrum of the modern mom all too well. The president of the Mount Laurel East Moms Club—and mother of three children, ages 8 months, 2 and 4—also works part time as an emergency room physician at Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury. And this fall, she’ll be teaching a course at Rowan University.

Sure, Weldon may have it all—but that doesn’t mean that it always feels that way. “We’re always guilty, no matter what,” Weldon says. “If you’re at home, you feel guilty you’re not working. If you’re at work, you feel guilty you’re not with your kids…. There’s this concept of, there’s no perfect answer, so therefore you choose.” And then, she adds, “You feel like you need to defend that position.”

The debate of whether to work or stay at home with the kids has long pitted mom against mom. But as the recession has shifted the economic landscape for many families, attitudes have changed as well.

Now that 12.4 percent of families include one or more unemployed persons, up from just 6.3 percent in 2007, the stigma that once surrounded working mothers—that suggested a working mom was not as committed to her children—has faded. More than two in three married moms now work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, most suburban families have two working parents—either due to financial needs or because of the parents’ own preference to continue working.

But what hasn’t changed is the guilt both working moms and stay-at-home moms say they feel about their situations. Society has pitted the two against each other, rather unfairly. “We’ve not done a good job in our workplace politics in creating that integration,” says Teresa Boyer, director of education and workforce development research at the Center For Women and Work at Rutgers University. “Because of that whole concept, you have created this manufactured crisis of, ‘Are you a better mother if you’re at home or at work?’”

Boyer calls it “the mommy wars”—and blames society, not mothers themselves, for the friction between homemakers and office-goers.

Washington Township’s Allison St. Maur-Romano, mom of 1-year-old Lucas, says that both she and her husband, Nick, have continued to work—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s my ‘me’ time,” St. Maur-Romano says of her accounting job. “Honestly, if I didn’t work, I’d lose my mind.”

Lucas goes to a home babysitting service when both mom and dad are working, but St. Maur-Romano says it does get expensive. “But, it’s generally accepted,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s a taboo subject, but stay-at-home moms do a lot more work, and their workday never ends.”

Jerry Jacobs, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research specialties include work-family conflicts, says working moms are going to feel that pressure.

“There’s some degree of underlying tension there,” he says. “The feeling is, the working moms aren’t there as much.”

For Weldon, that guilt eventually forced her to cut back from a fulltime workload. “With my schedule, it was just crazy hours,” Weldon says. “Working nights, days, weekends—I never knew who was putting [the kids] to bed.”

Weldon’s husband also works long days as a resident physician, so it was up to her to reduce her hours. “I want to be selfish,” Weldon says. “I don’t want to miss another kid’s baby steps. I want to be there for everything.”

But, staying at home full-time isn’t on Weldon’s radar—especially after all the schooling she’s gone through.

And highly trained or not, many women have to work these days just to keep their families afloat. Jacobs de­scribes having two working parents as “a good insurance strategy.”

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen even in the most secure jobs, with the fanciest degrees,” he says.

That’s the case for Dana and Luis Pilla of Cherry Hill, parents of 3-year-old Mia. Both work fulltime as teachers in a school district where budget cuts have made their positions uncertain. “Be­cause of what’s happening in the public sector, we haven’t had pay raises in three years,” Dana Pilla says. “And, we probably won’t get any.”

To supplement their income, both parents have side jobs, including tutoring and translation work. “We’re lucky to even have permanent jobs, quite honestly,” she says. “We do need those secondary jobs for income—even just to do family things with each other.”

But, because of all her work obligations, she has little free time during the school year. So, she makes the most of weekends and mornings before work. Pilla is also part of a moms’ club—in fact, she’s the only one in her club who works. But she says she doesn’t feel that she’s being judged. “The moms are all really nice,” she says. “Most of them stay at home as a choice. They want to raise their kids; they don’t want them in daycare. But I have the best of both worlds.”

For other families though, there are often more tough decisions to be made. Irene Cockerham knows that debate well. When the Mount Laurel mom was pregnant with her second child, her husband lost his job.

“It kind of shifted everything,” she says. “It was like you didn’t know what next month would bring.”

Luckily, Cockerham’s husband found new employment quickly—but money wasn’t coming in as fast as it once had. So, the Cockerhams sat down and discussed whether Irene should return to work.

In the end, she says, “It wasn’t worth it for us.”

The cost of daycare exceeded what a part-time job might pay, so Cockerham decided staying home made more sense—and it has also given her the time to build a community and support network with other mothers in the region.

“I have a lot of friends who are working moms,” Cockerham says. “They find it hard to really connect with other moms because they have to work.”

Of course, in this job market, some mothers may not have the option. This was the case for Christie Matthews, a teacher from Mount Laurel who found out her position was being eliminated while she was out on maternity leave. She’s been unemployed ever since.

“Looking back,” she says, “I wouldn’t have traded this year at home. I’ve made so many memories.”

The “mommy wars” will continue to be fought as long as there are parents and children, but the idea of balance is coming to the forefront.

“We have not found a good way to say, ‘This is what it means to be a parent, and this is what it means to have a fulfilling career,’” Boyer added.

As well, both Boyer and Jacobs said men are becoming more involved in family life than ever before.

“It’s a tough time, I think, for a lot of families,” Boyer says. “A lot of men are really feeling this pressure of having a greater work-life integration, more flexibility in their environments.”

While no family wants to be in the position of scrambling to make ends meet, experts say the recession may actually be catalyzing increased equality at home and in the workforce. As Matthews says, she and her neighbors understand that each family is facing down its own economic reality.

“I feel like everyone does the best for them and their family. I thought that people would be more judgmental of people who work or stay at home, but I really haven’t experienced it,” she says.

Boyer concurs. “There’s a positive side to these economic issues. Hopefully it will speed up these issues, which are both male and female.”

Maybe, in a just a few years, it will be “the daddy wars” instead.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 7 (September, 2011).
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