Working Moms--Between a Rock and a Hard Place

05/14/2007 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What do French Presidential Candidate Segolene Royale and pop-star Britney Spears have in common?

Both are women with fierce ambition and family baggage. Sometimes it lifts them up; mostly it weighs them down. Royale's four children and unmarried status are often held against her by French traditionalists, while Spears' inability to be home for her sons has landed her in trouble with L.A. county child protection services. One thing's for sure: in 2007 family matters have a new ability to sideline and sideswipe high-profile high-powered women.

There are two new challenges.

First, there is the growth of extreme jobs. Across sectors professionals are working harder and longer--and giving huge amounts of their hearts and brains to the job. A combination of factors--globalization, communication technology, gargantuan rewards at the top--has created high intensity work environments. More responsibility falls on the shoulders of fewer individuals. BlackBerries, e-mail, cell phones--along with the need to work in multiple time zones--have contributed to an always-on work culture.

Extreme jobs are not just long-hour jobs. New research undertaken by the Center for Work Life Policy defines an extreme job as one that requires 60+ hours a week and five additional performance pressures. Top picks include: round-the-clock client demands, working at a fast pace under tight deadlines and dealing with significant amounts of business travel.

Using this complex definition the data tell us that extreme jobs are spreading and are now all over the economy, in manufacturing and media as well as on Wall Street. Fully 45% of managerial jobs in large corporations these days are extreme.

Not surprisingly these jobs exact a price. The extreme work model undermines health and compromises relationships. At the end of a 12-hour work day nearly half of respondents say they are speechless--too tired to say anything at all to their spouse or partner. Fifty five percent say work pressures wreak havoc with sex lives. Focus group conversations were sprinkled with half-joking references to four people in bed these days: oneself, one's partner and two BlackBerrys.

Much of this fallout has particular significance for women.

More so than men, women are distressed by negative spillover on their children. Half of all mothers with extreme jobs see a close connection between their 73 hour week and a range of troubling problems in their children's lives. Whether it's watching too much television, discipline issues or underachieving in school tests, many working moms feel directly to blame.

This huge issue of maternal guilt brings us to the second challenge.

It's not just jobs that have become more extreme, it's also parenthood. Alissa Quart has written about the contemporary obsession with raising prodigies--the lengths parents (read: mothers) are expected to go to ensure their children get into Brearley/Princeton--and play Vivaldi sonatas on the side. She describes the vast new market in Baby Einstein products, and talks about the new pressures on parents to deliver a seriously gifted kid.

It's not just a market-driven thing. The experts are complicit in upping the ante and fanning the flames of maternal guilt.

Psychologist Claire Etaugh finds that only seven out of the 20 most influential child-care books approve, even grudgingly, of women working while they have young children. In her opinion, popular child care manuals "perpetuate the belief that non-maternal care is harmful to young children."

Recently, I made the rounds of the book stores and discovered that the most recent editions of Spock and Leach, and the new best sellers by Sears and Murkoff, continue to pretend that either mothers don't work or that mothers can deal with their work commitments during their baby's naptime. The overwhelming message remains: mothers should devote themselves to their children for the first three years of life, mothers are responsible for developing a child's total potential, and full-time work is incompatible with good mothering. A fifties lure is held out to a modern woman--with attentiveness, emotional vigilance and her uninterrupted presence she can provide an environment from which a superior individual will emerge.

No wonder working moms feel huge pressures on both fronts. The goal post just moved--with regard to careers and children.

In 2007 mothers don't want criticism--or yet another bunch of chores. They want heavy lifting on the empathy and support front.

Interestingly enough, the experts in my grandmothers' time were much more mother-centered.

In 1914, Mrs. West in her book Infant Care, advocated a 6:00 p.m. bedtime--for the convenience of the mother. "If you have not tried putting away your children at six o'clock, you have no idea what a relief it will be to you. It can be done. I have it myself with three boys, and no mother who knows the quiet comfort of a still household in the evening would fail to immediately begin the training to make it possible."

This advice sounded like music to my modern ears.