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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: The Choices We Make
July 21, 2011 - 8:57pm

A town not far from where I work defines itself as “The City of Choice”, and I used to laugh that perhaps I should move there, since I am an economist. Economics is essentially the study of how people make decisions, or choices, given the constraints they face. For example, given our budgets, we choose what products to buy, with one of these products being “leisure”, or, more accurately, “leisure and home production”, since one thing we can choose is to spend our time caring for our family. Like leisure, this time is valued at the wage we could have earned if we chose, instead, to work in the marketplace.

I thought of this recently as I described to my daughter the schedule held by one of our neighbors, the mother of two children who are twins. The discussion came from her question of whether that woman was a “stay at home mom,” something that is very common in this part of the country. She is not, and I explained to my daughter the schedule she holds so that she is able to both be available to her children and to work in the marketplace at the same time. As I did so, I became overwhelmed with admiration for the extra effort she gives in order to succeed in meeting obligations in these two areas of her life.

This woman works in the evenings so she can be home with her children during the day. This was especially important when they were babies and small children. Now that they are older, this is less of an issue, but it still allows for extra time caring for them. It allows her to drop them off at the bus each morning, and there is never a question of whether her children can participate in after school activities or whether she can be available to serve as lunch mother on any given day. There is no need for “latch key care”, as she meets them as they get off the bus each day. I admire all that she does for her children, and often wish that I had the flexibility to do as much.

This flexibility, however, comes at a price. She works evenings to be able to do this, and sometimes works late into the night. I have found several other women who have similar arrangements, and I must say that I don’t think I would have the stamina to do what they do. I recall the first few months of being a mother, as I would stay at home all day with my daughter, only to throw on some clothes that did not have fresh spots on them so I could go in and teach my classes at night. I was always tired and felt that I was never doing either job 100%.

Two of the women I have met who have such arrangements are nurses, and both work difficult shifts so they can be home during the day all week. One works long weekend shifts of a total of almost 40 hours, so they are considered to be full time in the work they do three days a week, while another works each evening, often until late hours. The one who worked each evening says that she sometimes forgets which day it was, and even showed up to her son’s school on the wrong day once to volunteer (!), thinking it was Wednesday and not Tuesday. Hearing this, I feel guilty that I, with a job that does not leave me confused about the day of the week, do not volunteer to help as she does.

I notice that many of the parents choosing such jobs are mothers, but sometimes it is also fathers who make these sacrifices. I know of at least one academic father who took paternity leave when his daughter was born, and one relative who also works long weekend shifts so he can be home with his daughter all week. I am curious about what others have noticed about work arrangements that parents choose so they can more effectively both parent and work for pay in the marketplace. And I wonder what other structures might evolve as more parents seek such options in the future?


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