When I finished grad school – pregnant with my first child – I decided to focus my job search on finding a position that was part-time. Torn between working and staying at home, I wanted to see if I could maximize the best of both worlds. After many months of searching (which included being turned down for a position because I was pregnant), I eventually found a part-time job doing research in my field.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I headed to the office, and on Mondays, Fridays and the weekend I stayed at home. Life was certainly more hectic on the days that I worked – dinner was more likely to be microwaved than home-cooked – but overall, I had found a balance that worked for our family. I had plenty of time to meet the demands of my job, while still having time for trips to the park, pediatrician appointments, and tackling the ever-present mound of laundry.
It’s not surprising that most mothers say that working part-time would be their ideal situation. In a Pew Research survey, almost half (47 percent) of mothers say their ideal situation would be to work part-time, compared to 32 percent who want to work full-time and 20 percent who would prefer not to work at all outside of the home. Granted, about half (46 percent) of the women currently working full-time prefer their current situation, but a large portion (44 percent) say they would prefer working part-time hours.
There’s good reason for many mothers to prefer part-time work. A study from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development found that mothers who work part-time might be experiencing the best of both worlds. In the study, part-time working moms (those working between one and 32 hours per week) were less depressed and had better health than stay-at-home moms. They also experience less work-family conflict and had more opportunities to be involved in their children’s school than full-time working moms.
For me, working part-time allowed for a built-in degree of flexibility that working parents need. If my child woke up with a fever on a day I typically went into work, I shifted my schedule, kept him home, and headed to the office later that week instead. If I wanted to take a few days off to visit with family, I could work extra hours one week to have more free time later. While not all part-timers have flexible schedules and childcare, my position gave me more work-life balance than if I'd been in the office 40-plus hours a week.
For our family, I found that I was willing (and able) to sacrifice a bigger pay check for a greater work-life balance. While being “busy” has become a symbol of success and prestige in our culture, I didn’t relish the stress that accompanies it. According to a Pew Research survey, 40 percent of moms employed full-time report always feeling rushed, compared to 29 percent of those working part-time, and 20 percent say balancing work and family is very difficult, compared to just 11 percent of those working part-time.
But, as I found out when my second son was born, there are some major downsides to working part-time as well.
Although I was only working three days a week, I was paying for full-time daycare. The only center in my town that offered part-time spots had a wait list that, three years later, I am technically still on. Paying for two children in full-time care with only a part-time paycheck was a big financial strain.
Many part-timers run into similar problems. Part-time employees, especially those in low-wage jobs, are paid disproportionately less per hour than those working full-time, according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin. The fact that many bosses still prefer employees who work the traditional nine to five (or who can stay well past five) over those who need flexible schedules helps to contribute to the gender wage gap. Part-time workers are also less likely to receive benefits such as retirement, health insurance, sick leave, and vacation.
In the end, my paycheck didn’t justify the expense of childcare, and I decided to stay at home. Having been on both sides of the equation – working mom, stay-at-home mom – I see the benefits and drawbacks to both. Working part-time gave me the best of both worlds, from the lazy mornings snuggles and trips to the park on sunny afternoons, to doing work I loved and contributing to our financial well-being.
Mothers today are faced with seemingly insurmountable demands – bosses who expect their full devotion, a society that thinks women should stay at home, paychecks that are smaller than their working father counterparts, unaffordable childcare, a lack of paid sick leave and, of course, the desire to do whatever is best for their children. Part-time employment isn’t able to solve all of these problems and, in fact, can make some of them worse. But it can give working parents a greater degree of flexibility in addressing them.
The workplace developed in an era when there was typically a mom at home to meet any and all of her children’s needs. But as women have joined the workforce and fathers have become more involved parents, it's become apparent the old nine-to-five doesn’t work for everyone anymore.