A lovely sentiment, but…

It troubles me, a little bit.

“Ms. Uttech says she thinks — or at least hopes — that someday motherhood will be viewed by employers as an asset, as a source of leadership skills and other human capital. Maybe someday managers won’t just tolerate family responsibilities but seek them out in potential hires, she said.’Because I’m a mom I know how to multitask, and I have all these other skills I didn’t have before like juggling, mentoring, educating, problem-solving, managing,’ she said. ‘And I’m so much more productive now during the hours when I am working. Motherhood should be a feather in my cap, not a drawback.’

via Coveting Not a Corner Office, but Time at Home – NYTimes.com.

I’m trying to understand what troubles me about this sentiment.

Is “motherhood” really a “feather” in one’s cap? As Ms. Uttech describes, I can understand why she sees it that way, since it requires so much extra (waking before dawn, driving for hours to and from work and extra curricular activities, organizing every minute of one’s day, relying heavily on relatives and a supportive husband, having to prove for years that she’s capable of working from home one day a week before being allowed to do so permanently).

Employers need to make it easier for all of us, with or without family responsibilities, to do our jobs. We need to continue to make the business case for workplace flexibility, so that more employers see its long-term pay-off.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s a bit harder to make that case when you have New York Times stories on heroic moms like Ms. Uttech, who has a sympathetic female boss, and supportive female friends and a (strangely unquoted) supportive husband.

Work-life balance is in everybody’s–not just moms’ and/or women’s–interest.

Maybe the next story will be about a male corporate executive who has the Corner Office, won’t give it up, but wants (and gets!) more time at home, to spend with his grown children.

Maybe.

If you can stretch, you can reach.

I’m going to be 43 in about four months. And it would appear that a 37-year-old woman is now a vice president at an organization in DC that employed me for five years, before I left in 2002 for a new life with my new husband in a new city. Had we stayed in DC, there’s a fair chance that I could have been that vice president right about now.

I told my husband about this, and he immediately–and I mean immediately–said, “Well, you can get back out there if you want, you can be a VP.”

“No organization is going to hire me, nearly 8 years out of the full-time paid workforce, to manage a huge budget and direct several people.”

“Well, maybe not right away, but you’d show them you could do it in no time.”

(He’s a good egg, my husband.)

“I guess,” I hedged… “But I like being home for the children after school and in the early evenings. I think that’s important.” He agreed.

I renewed again my commitment to myself to find the perfect part-time job, once we know where we’ll be living for any length of time. We were expecting to be here for no more than three years: the children were very young when we moved here, and I didn’t pursue outside full-time work as a result. Flash forward five years, and here I am, blogging.

Flashing back: when our daughter was three months old, I was able to return to my job and bring her with me–she was the perfect office mate. The implicit understanding: I’d eventually put her in full-time child care and go back to working full-time. Things didn’t turn out that way. (I ended up resigning about a month after finding out I was pregnant again, and about a month before I miscarried.) I was home full-time then, with one baby girl. My husband traveled… a LOT… so it was probably for the best that I was home. And then we had a second baby. Five months later I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. One month later we moved…

It gets old, this particular corporate wife story.

But there’s context–there’s a backstory–that matters, not to me, but to every corporate wife. I am very happy to have been reminded of it in this, one of the best things I’ve read in a while, “Why Gender Equality Stalled.” For the first time, I’ve read the words that perfectly articulate my current professional/personal state of “choice.”

So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more…  [W]hen they explained their “decision-making process,” it became clear that most had made the “choice” to quit work only as a last resort — when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns…

When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by.

Have I undergone a “values stretch?” Does “adjusting” expectations equal “watering down” expectations? (As an aside and as a serious freaking question: Isn’t that what marriage requires?)

I don’t know. I can’t imagine working the number of hours I worked in 2004, before our daughter was born, in 2013, with her and her brother around. I wouldn’t see them as much. My husband wouldn’t see them as much. They’d be just as lovely, just as wonderful, just as healthy, just as loved. But we wouldn’t see them, be with them, as much.

When I was considering resigning from that job in 2005, I told my colleague, who also happened to be my friend, who also happened to manage human resources, that I was struggling to find the right full-time child care setting. My job was not a part-time job–it was never an option. (He did not know that I was pregnant at the time. I needed a near perfect setting.)

He said, rather glibly, it seemed, “All you need to do is find a child care setting that costs a certain percentage less than your annual salary. Then, working is worth it.”

Incredulous, I snapped back, “But that’s not why I became a mother, to just put our daughter in child care for the right amount of money. That’s not what makes it worth it to me.”

I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. I still feel like a jerk for my part in it. For sounding so… righteous. Ugh. My friend and his wife? They had their son in child care, for the right price, so that they could both work, so that they could afford to live the life they wanted to live. Maybe I was a little defensive, pregnant, at work, discussing my employment, with my five-month-old baby playing on the floor next to me. Or maybe I was just too lucky to speak with any compassion or forethought.

My point, then and now, is three-fold: (1) I have always wanted to have children and be with them as they grew, for as much time as possible. (2) I put myself through grad school to contribute to the economy and make the world a better place. (3) I want a job that is flexible, allowing me to do what I’m best at, part-time, so that I can be the kind of mother I want to be.

I just want the labor market to want what I want. Am I greedy? I don’t think so.

[L]et’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.

It’s a “values stretch” of another sort, I guess. A good sort.

“Stand by [and up for] your man”

Over the course of the past year, my spouse has come home on three occasions with a work-related problem so deep and troubling that his physical health was affected. The first two were pretty bad, but manageable–they gave him stomach aches, utterly exhausted him and caused extra restless sleep. The third–which occurred this week–was really bad. I thought he was going to pass out from the stress and the frustration he felt.

We talk about his job and its pressures daily and in great detail. (I find this to be a key requirement in corporate wifery.) I ask questions, I read up on topics utterly foreign to me, I offer feedback on his presentations, his writings, his strategies. I give advice from a different perspective. We complement each other. He’s an introvert. I’m an extrovert. He’s an analyst. I’m a salesman. We click.

This week, I sat ten feet away from him while he was on the phone at 8:45 in the evening with a colleague on the other side of the world. It was a very serious conversation, my husband’s voice sounded far too controlled. I looked over at him and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. He was very still, listening to his colleague, but he was flexing his hand: open fist, closed fist, open fist, closed fist, open fist. They talked for a while. He ended the call. He said he felt dizzy. I got scared.

He told me about the problem, and we talked about it, for far longer than he would have preferred, but I insisted. He needed it out of his head. I played coach, I played cheerleader. I reminded him of positives, minimized negatives. He went to bed. I stayed up late, reading up on the specifics of the problem he faced, which required a cramming of certain aspects GAAP between the hours of 10 and 11pm.

The next morning I said brightly, “This can’t possibly be as bad as you’re feeling it will be. It just can’t. The issue just doesn’t seem that uncommon. It’s just a problem to be solved, nothing more.” (It was my final effort at optimism before he headed to work.)

Well, he emailed me later that day with what he believed to be a solution to the problem. “Think we’re okay,” he wrote. I read his email, and was relieved, and sincerely proud of him.

When he got home, we talked more. I gave him some more advice, that I picked up when I read that profile of President Obama by Michael Lewis. In a nutshell, I offered this.

“You have to adjust your expectations, and assume that things will go wrong. Assume that your job is to clean up messes, not avoid messes entirely. It’s the shock and frustration with a new problem that gives you such stress. You never have difficulty solving the problem. But you have difficulty dealing with that initial disappointment. Change your expectations. Promise me that.”

He promised.

Now, there is a lot to be said for having a job which you can leave at the office, and for having a marriage in which a couple doesn’t discuss work. All that, however, has to be said by somebody else. My husband, at this point in his life, spends roughly 14 hours a day working or thinking about work, Monday through Friday. On weekends, about two to three hours a day. About an 80-hour week, all told. As I’ve said before, I’m obscenely lucky to be in my position, safe at home. It is the very least I can do to learn about what he does, how he does it, and help him manage the stress.

Now, when I do this, there is a slight risk of falling into a self-pity spiral (fueled heavily by lack of sleep, stress, hormones?). You know the kind–where I wonder if my husband notices what I do every day with the children, the home, our life beyond work (I manage most things in our lives beyond work, except lawn care and invasive wildlife). The kind where, in my darkest moments, I can actually think, “If I were hit by a bus, he’d really only need a babysitter with housekeeping and cooking skills to replace me…”

Yeah, I’ve thought that. It’s shameful. Spirals like that are likely, when you keep things to yourself.

So I started writing this little blog several months ago. People are reading it, people are liking it, and I’m starting to think about next steps, maybe even someday writing a book. I talked about all this with my husband about a month ago. I talked about self-publishing, about talking with people who know people who know other people who could maybe give me advice and help.

My husband was quiet.

“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not…” I trailed off.

He looked at me, honestly confused. “Why do you think you need to self-publish? You can get yourself published by any company out there. Why do you have to go through all these middle men to get advice or reviews of your work? Go directly to whomever you want to go to. Don’t sell yourself short.”

My slayer of monsters. My fixer of obscure but dire accounting snafus. My introvert. My analyst. He turned into me.

When you stand by, and up for, him? He faces you. He’s your mirror.

And you both look great.