As Baby Boomer Working Moms Leave the Workplace, Has Anything Really Changed?

Female lawyer working in office

BREAKING NEWS: August 1, 2015, headline in New York Times  – “Millennial Men Aren’t The Dads They Hoped to Be.”

Article Recap: Many young men initially plan to be in equal partnerships with their wives –  believing that when they become parents, both will continue to work and both will share childcare. A 50/50 life.  Then, when they become parents, they make the shocking discovery that the work world will not accommodate their idealistic notions of equality – so, facing less-than-family polices at the office, they are forced to revert to more traditional roles with Mom stepping back from her career, doing more of the care-giving and Dad doing less.

AND

BREAKING NEWS:  July 22, 2015, headline in New York Times – “More Than Their Mothers, Young Women Plan Career Pauses”

Article Recap:  The younger generation of women in the work force, millennial, define “career success…less linearly than their Moms. They are more likely than their predecessors (the generation of women who entered the business world in large numbers) to plan to scale back at times or to seek out flexible jobs. Fewer millennial women believe they can succeed in combining their careers and family life like their baby boomer Moms did (or tried to do.)

I read these two recent articles  and thought, whoa – is this really where we are now?

Despite all the gains working Moms supposedly made in the past 30 years since I was a young, full-time Mom/full-time lawyer – All of that hard work that we working Moms did to push for changes in our workplaces, so that the women who came after us could be successful? We thought we were paving the way for our daughters, but apparently not!

Do you hear sarcasm in my tone? Yes, you probably do.

We were among the first to think (idealistically) about “having it all” – We kept our given names when we got married, our husbands would be our equal partners (that part worked for me, thankfully), we would work full-time, share child care and somehow in the rosy haze of an uncertain future we would have “work-life balance” – a brand new thought in the ’80’s.

Then reality hit. Being pressured at both ends. Simultaneously feeling guilty about not spending enough time at home and not spending enough time at the office. Law firm life, I quickly learned, was not set up to accommodate working Moms. Like many corporate environments, law firm success is measured in increments of time. You are judged by the hours you put in, the more hours the better, even better if you are visible to as many people as possible while you are putting in those hours.

At my DC law firm everyone seemed to keep track of which associates were at their desks billing time like good little legal soldiers and which were not. The later you stayed at work (remember this was pre-internet so you couldn’t work from home even if you wanted to), the more diligent you appeared.

But one of the reasons I had two kids was to actually spend time with them. (silly me) So I insisted on trying to get home every night for a family dinner, followed by bath time, reading a book or two (or three or four or more) and eventually bedtime.

In order to have that family dinner, at the end of each work day I would sneak down the hall and try my best to slip into the elevator unnoticed. If I was spotted, one of my male colleagues, seeing me leave the office at the ridiculously early hour of 6:00 or 6:30 p.m., with bulging briefcase in hand, would invariably comment, just as I pushed the “down” button —

“Taking a half day?”

Ha, ha, hilarious.

These comments were not made by any of the older firm lawyers, the men in their 50’s and 60’s whose wives, for the most part, did not work outside the home, and thus could be (somewhat) excused for thinking that women should be happy homemakers and leave the tough office stuff to men.

No, the men who needled the few of us – perhaps there were four or five of us at my large firm  –  who had the nerve to try to be both lawyers and moms – were often our own-age colleagues whose wives mostly stayed at home. Our male colleagues bragged like it was a badge of honor about not seeing their kids during the work week, I leave too early and stay too late, sigh, they would say. And they wondered if we were going to stick it out for the long haul to try to make partner.  Would we drop like flies when we had our second kids? (some of us did.) Part-time work was frowned upon, the “mommy track” a stigma to be avoided and telecommuting not yet invented.

So we were expected to keep our heads down and work hard to be taken seriously. To be just like the men. And even in the 1980’s to look like them too. Yes, I was one of those women who had a closet-full of the requisite black, navy and gray, hideous skirted power-suits which I wore with decorous blouses, some of which came with big, soft, drapey bows to simulate the appearance of a man’s tie.

And we were also expected not to show off the Mom Thing too much. Not to talk about our kids and best not to have it look like we even had them. One helpful young partner actually came into to my office once and advised me to get rid of the clearly kindergartener-made pen container (gold glitter and macaroni stars) on my desk and the finger-painted drawing on the wall because it made it look like I wasn’t taking my job seriously, that I favored love of my family over love of the law.

Umm, didn’t I??

And yet when that same young partner left the office mid-way through a Thursday afternoon to catch his son’s soccer game, he was praised as a “family man.” But when a female lawyer took time off to watch her daughter in a school play, she was seen as “less committed.”

Have you ever heard the term “family woman”? Me, neither.

And oddly enough, after the computer entered our daily working and home lives in the 1990’s, things got worse, not better. Oh, good, we can now work from home turned into –> Oh, not so good, we are now expected to work from home too. To check emails when we got up and again before bed. To revise documents on Saturday afternoons. And on Sunday nights. Work time and family time blurred.

Flash forward to the 2015 headlines – yes, we have made some progress. Thankfully working Moms no longer have to wear ugly skirted-suits. We can put up as many kiddie photos in our offices as we want. Maternity leave is a given, not a request you have to make.

But still in many professions, the clock governs, hours on the job matter. Judgments made on the level of your commitment based on the quantity of your work rather than its quality. And part-time hours are still being interpreted as part-time dedication.

As a full-fledged feminist (go back to the archives, you can check the date of my original subscription to Ms. magazine!), I was and am all for choice. Women can choose to work or not to work, to stay home full-time or part-time, to take career “pauses” as they wish, to have kids or not to have kids. But then, as now, if you have a family and you want to have a job, women more than men are making the compromises.

So I think we have a problem – if this new young generation of working Moms are indeed choosing to step back from their careers solely because the workplace hasn’t evolved as much as our thinking as to gender roles has. We baby boomer working Moms did try to lead the way for you. (You’re Welcome.) But now we who blazed the work/life balance trail so it would be smoother once you got there, are starting to exit the workplace.

We did what we could. Now it is up to the next generation to push your professions to really change. It is long past time to get rid of the structural obstacles and the outdated attitudes facing women in the workplace. Are you up to the challenge?

4 Comments

Filed under Baby Boomers, Careers, Law firm life, Lawyers, Men vs Women, Moms, Women, Women in the Workplace, Working Moms, Working Moms, Working Women

4 responses to “As Baby Boomer Working Moms Leave the Workplace, Has Anything Really Changed?

  1. Miriam Daniel

    I love the “family woman” . Tells it all. Nice job!

    Like

  2. It is a shame that there is still a challenge!

    Like

  3. greg

    This reminds me of a saying: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Women got some great stuff but they got plenty of bad stuff with their “equality”. Who knows, maybe their life spans, health and stress will soon catch up to men. It’s good to have a level playing field as far as life opportunities. The question is do you really want to wallow in mud and train every day for a moment of glory that may never come. But once you do decide to get on the playing field don’t complain when you get shoved around by mean people.

    Like

  4. I think this is a really smart analysis. I’d love to see you republish it somewhere to get even more eyeballs on it. The Mid? Midlife Blvd?

    Like

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