Experts: No right choice for women about work, being at home with kids

| Monday, April 16, 2012

Jennifer Russell hears the comments when playing in the park with her son Aubrey, 1.

Another mom will mention what she does for a living, and Russell, 38, of the North Side will say that she stays at home with her child.

"It must be nice," is a common response, she said.

Alyssa Herzog Melby of Highland Park feels the tension at times when talking with friends who stay home with their children. Herzog Melby, director of education and community engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, thinks other women sometimes judge her when she puts her 8-month-old daughter, Adela, in day care.

Welcome to the "mommy wars," the debates that have raged for decades over women's choice to join the work force or stay home and raise children. Though rhetoric has been flying since women flocked into the corporate world in the 1970s and '80s, it took on new life in headlines last week.

Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen criticized Ann Romney, wife of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, in a CNN interview, as someone who "actually never worked a day in her life." Ann Romney quickly pointed out that raising five boys as a homemaker while her husband pursued his business and political careers was "a tough job" and one her husband said was more important than his.

"From the minute women started stepping foot into the workplace, the debates and the stigmas began," said Jennifer Sanftner, professor of psychology at Slippery Rock University and co-chair of the university's commission on the status of women.

"Women immediately started judging the decisions other women made and feeling that their choice was the superior choice," she said. "Women who stayed at home felt they were raising their children better than women who were working outside the home, and the working women felt like they were showing the world that they could do it all and the stay-at-home moms weren't (better). And it hasn't let up yet."

Sanftner said when women began relinquishing traditional roles in the home for the workplace, men did not revise their roles at home. That led to women taking on more responsibility — something that has increased during the past few decades. With it, the idea of the "supermom" emerged.

"Women have always been, and remain, the primary caregivers of the children, and they usually are the ones who are cleaning and caring for the home and cooking and grocery shopping," Sanftner said. "And on top of that, many of them are working. The men may do maintenance around the home, but the women are doing the bulk of what needs to be done in life. So, they sacrifice themselves. They sacrifice time for themselves, and sleep.

"They want to do it all and do it well."

According to Chris Briem, sociology professor with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, women in Pittsburgh make up more than half of the region's work force, up from about 37 percent in 1980.

Heather Chirdon, 38, of Shaler has tried staying home and working. She oversees several eyewear stores while raising her kids, Christine, 16, and Ethan, 11, with husband, Chris, who works at Pitt. She said she found herself happier and more content working outside the home and therefore a better mother to her children and better able to provide for them financially.

The "mommy wars" mentality irritates her.

"They're all pellets from the same buckshot we keep firing at each other," Chirdon said. "I honestly believe it's a smokescreen we use because we don't want to face the fact that we are either insecure or jealous. We see something in another person we want, so we attack something else. I may want to have your body, but I realize that isn't possible, so I'm going to make myself feel better by calling you a bad mom for working.

"I have friends who work outside the home and friends who home-school their kids. It's not my life. We have to get over the comparisons and stop assuming that everyone's situation is a one-size-fits-all."

Rebecca Harris, director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University, said she sees many women today leaving the corporate world to start businesses and work from home after having children.

"So much of the corporate workplace just isn't conducive and supportive to women with children," Harris said. "Companies need to be more flexible, to offer flex time and day care."

Christopher Ramsey, a labor and employment attorney with the Downtown-based firm of Morgan Lewis, said employers cannot legally ask a prospective job candidate if she is pregnant or planning to start a family.

"You have to stick to questions related to the job and job qualifications," Ramsey said.

Women who choose to work face other challenges. Pay disparity between men and women in the workplace began as soon as women started entering the corporate world and still exists, experts said. According to Briem, women in Pittsburgh with less than a high school education make about 75 percent of what their male counterparts are paid, while women with a graduate degree make about 71 percent of their male counterparts' pay.

Today at Duquesne University, Lilly Ledbetter will recount her decade-long court battle for equal pay with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Ledbetter, a production supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, filed a civil-rights lawsuit in 1998 after discovering her pay was less than that of her male counterparts with equal or less seniority. Her lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, which did not rule in her favor, but in 2009 Congress enacted and President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

JoAnne Boyle says she thinks women should stop worrying about child-rearing choices they make and stop criticizing other women's choices.

Boyle, president of Seton Hill University in Westmoreland County, raised six sons and a daughter — now ages 37 to 50 — while working full-time. She said she "often felt like I wasn't doing a very good job at anything, but I did the best I could and I made my peace with it. I accepted that I wasn't perfect."

She knows both sides of the issue. Her daughter is a stay-at-home mom with three sons who "is such a full-time, hands-on mom," but a daughter-in-law has four children, a full-time job and attends graduate school. She also appears to "always be with her children and involved in their lives," said Boyle, who respects both women's decisions.

"Be comfortable with your choice and understand who you are and what is personally fulfilling for you," Boyle said. "There are rewards and drawbacks to each choice. But own your decision. And don't judge someone else because they made a different one."

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