Making multiple roles easier for working mothers

Working mothers would be the first to admit the challenges of balancing personal and professional lives. But most of them wouldn't have it any other way.

These are the findings of a recent national survey, in which only 12 percent of working mothers reported that they would prefer to be full-time wives and mothers. Similarly, less than one-fifth said they believed their husbands would prefer them to stay at home.

The study was conducted by two working mothers from Westchester County, N.Y., who looked at how other mothers in the work force felt about their lives and how they managed their many responsibilities. In their new book, ''Mothers Who Work'' (Ballantine Books, New York), Jeanne Bodin and Bonnie Mitelman define the basic challenges facing working mothers and their families, and suggest some solutions.

''The reality is there are a lot of women who work, and there are things that can be done to make it easier for them,'' says co-author Jeanne Bodin, a teacher with two daughters.

The findings were based on responses from 442 of 750 questionnaires and 25 personal interviews with middle-class working mothers across the country. In the sample, 70 percent of the women were between 35 and 54 years old and only 22 percent had less than a college education.

In practical terms, the survey respondents expressed a need for better child care, flexible work schedules, safe mass transportation for their children, community-run after-school programs, and more housecleaning services. They voiced concern over a lack of time for their husbands, family activities, and for personal care.

''Almost universally,'' the authors write, ''women put themselves and their personal needs and interests far behind their professional and familial obligations.''

Even with the majority of mothers in the work force, the authors found, many still feel atypical. Many women had to deal with an underlying sense of societal disapproval, even if they were working primarily for economic reasons.

''What makes things harder for working mothers is a general lack of understanding and support,'' the authors write. ''They don't feel their plight is taken seriously. . . . Sometimes they infer from society's attitude that their working is a frivolous indulgence, an attempt to find selfish gratification when they should be home caring for children.''

In reality, the authors point out, most mothers feel some guilt about working because they are conscientious, caring parents. ''We found a very strong commitment to family,'' says Mrs. Bodin. ''Most women plan very carefully to be with their children. It's not as if Mother goes off to work without any concern for Johnny.''

Many of the women surveyed felt that at least one spouse should have a flexible schedule to accommodate the children's needs. They also said the greatest aid to working outside the home was living as close to work as possible. Many respondents, particularly single mothers, experienced difficulty in finding adequate child care.

Another major area of concern was home management. ''The key to successful families, we found, were women who could set priorities: 'What can I do? What can someone else do? What can we skip?' '' says Mrs. Bodin.

Husbands may be willing to do a household task when asked, the authors found, but will rarely initiate it themselves. ''Men still haven't traveled from the expectations they were brought up with to the reality of the situation,'' she says.

A part-time clerical worker from Ohio remarked, ''I have always believed the person liberated in women's lib is the man. As a woman takes on more financial responsibilities, she eliminates a lot of stress on the man.''

Mrs. Bodin says, ''Many of the women said their husbands were proud of them and were willing to share the economic burden.'' Yet, she adds, ''Consistently the woman is the pivotal person in the house and responsible for keeping it running smoothly.''

It's often difficult for a woman herself to give up the idea of the house as her own responsibility. But the authors found some mothers were able to operate on a principle of sharing in which the house is considered the family's responsibility, and not the mother's alone.

More than a third of the women surveyed indicated they did have support from their husbands in running the home, particularly in food shopping and meal preparation. A large majority of respondents did not indicate that children should help with household tasks, but those with children who did contribute felt that sharing family chores fostered a sense of fairness, independence, equality, and the satisfaction of accomplishing something essential to the family.

On a professional and community level, the authors conclude, taking individual steps is the most effective means for easing the pressures on working parents.

In the community, schools still assume there is someone at home in case of an emergency, school organizations are still dependent on available women volunteers, teacher appointments are scheduled during the middle of the day, and most activities and services that involve children and the household operate on the assumption that a woman is home during the day.

Although it is difficult to change an entire pattern, working parents have achieved some positive changes by negotiating alternatives themselves. A simple request to reschedule a parent-teacher conference from the middle to either the beginning or end of the day, for example, can prevent losing a half day of work.

Volunteer organizations could think in terms of ways they can make use of the business-related skills of working mothers such as calling on a mother's financial expertise in fund-raising instead of asking her to bake cookies. Another mother might offer to print tickets and posters for a school play instead of making costumes. It's often up to parents themselves to suggest these alternatives, the authors emphasize.

In the workplace, working parents are learning to negotiate flexible-time or job-sharing arrangements on an individual basis by presenting realistic, workable plans that benefit both themselves and the company.

''If (upper management) in corporations would understand it would be to their benefit to provide on-site day care, I think they would have it,'' says Mrs. Bodin, who believes corporate changes to meet family needs will be initiated from within the organization rather than from the top. ''Working men seeing the complexity of their wives' lives may begin to press for these issues.''

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