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Blending motherhood and working: Moms work by choice — and also out of necessity

SPANISH FORK — The clock in the dimly lit kitchen reads 6:30 as Alyssa Abbott heads downstairs to wake 12-year-old David.

"We need to get up if you want to eat breakfast before school," she says, gently shaking the sleeping bag, which appears to contain only a head of tousled brown hair.

By 6:42, David is up in the kitchen, where 16-year-old Morgan is already finishing a waffle and her Spanish vocabulary sheet and 14-year-old Broden is putting on his shoes.

As David, whose left pant leg is halfway tucked into a bright green cowboy boot, tries to coax the last drips of syrup from the bottle, Morgan races out the door to her carpool.

A few minutes later, Abbott and the boys are off to the bus stop. From there Abbott usually rushes to work.

But not today. Wednesdays are her day off.

Which means instead of spending eight hours ringing up groceries at Macey's in Spanish Fork she'll go to the bank, meet with her son's teacher and figure out odd discrepancies on her credit report.

Not the fairy-tale ending she envisioned as a little girl.

For some women, employment is an escape, a social network and an outlet for creative passions and energies. But for Abbott, who's about to be a single mom, it's just another reminder that she's not where she wants to be.

"I really always just wanted to be a wife and mother," she said. "But life doesn't always happen the way you want it."

Abbott is not the only mom scrambling to make ends meet by juggling a job as well as laundry, dishes, dinner, homework, trips to the mall and Scout camps.

In the United States today, among mothers with children under 18 years of age, 71 percent of them are working, the highest number on record. In 1975 it was 47 percent.

While those numbers refer to mothers who punch a time clock or pull in a paycheck, any mother will tell you that motherhood is its own job — minus the public recognition, office perks or paid holidays.

In the early 1800s, nearly all women had to be "working moms," raising chickens as well as children, and laboring alongside their husbands and children to keep the farm and family going.

Over the years, as men began leaving the farm for the city, women increasingly fell into a new role of staying home and "inculcating values in (their) children to help make them successful in the new marketplace," said Kimberly Hernandez, a U.S. social historian and visiting instructor at Utah State University.

But being a "stay-at-home" mom was a middle-class luxury, as working-class mothers, approximately 25 to 30 percent of women at any given time, often worked part-time or even full-time jobs to support their families.

Today, 58 percent of families with children have both parents working, and in homes where only one parent is employed, it's the mother in 20 percent of the cases, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

While many of those women work because they want to, grateful for the opportunity to blend careers with child rearing, others, like Abbott, work just to put food on the table and pay the rent.

They're part of the growing population who discovered that even before this lingering recession, families needed two incomes to survive. The recession just made it worse.

But even if the recession ended tomorrow, it's unlikely that the number of working mothers would drop dramatically, experts say.

One reason is that the recession, and globalization, have changed the structure of the U.S. economy by increasing the focus on service, retail, food service and other white-collar work — traditionally jobs held by women — while more typical male jobs of manufacturing and production have become harder to find, Hernandez said, thus leading many families to switch the roles of breadwinner for an unforeseeable amount of time.

Yet despite the economic pressures, the cultural shift and the growing population of women in the workforce, most working moms say they still experience conflict — whether through the thoughtless comments of others or because of an inner struggle to find peace with their decisions.

And it is a struggle.

Nearly every woman the Deseret News interviewed for this story became emotional during the conversation — displaying the depth of feeling they have for their families and the worry they have about how their choices affect their loved ones.

Because they all want to be good mothers. They all want to nurture their children.

But many of them also want to work, and derive great satisfaction from their accomplishments outside the home.

It's a difficult, and intensely personal decision, and no matter what women choose, they ask for understanding. They want to be seen as individuals, judged not by some theoretical standard, but evaluated and appreciated in the context of their own situation, needs and desires.

"We're just people, just trying to do what we can to help our families survive," Abbott said. "Don't say you're sorry. Just treat me like I'm still the same as anyone else. My first priority is my kids, I'm just working so I can take care of them."


There's always a little bit of guilt, working mothers will tell you.

Guilt that instead of making dinner or playing with finger puppets they're sitting in meetings or making phone calls. When they're at work, they worry about what they're missing with the children. And when they're at home, they feel guilty for neglecting projects at the office.

While the emotional ping-pong game is not unique to one specific group of women, it often affects Mormon mothers to a greater degree, given the social and societal pressures they feel to stay home.

For years, church leaders have strongly encouraged female members to stay at home and take care of their children, rather than compete in the work place. Single, divorced or widowed women who worked were to be the exceptions, not the norm.

While the church's focus on families and the importance given to the role of mothers hasn't changed, church leaders today acknowledge the challenging economic environment, which often requires individual family adaptation.

During the most recent LDS General Conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made this point quite clear when he praised all LDS women, and then offered specific counsel regarding employment.

"First, no woman should ever feel the need to apologize or feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children," he said. "Nothing could be more significant in our Father in Heaven's plan. Second, we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate people's circumstances. Husbands and wives should prayerfully counsel together, understanding they are accountable to God for their decisions."

His comments address the concern that a growing number of LDS women are working outside the home for reasons that are often incredibly personal, and frequently unknown by anyone besides the woman, or the couple.

Yet, working mom Cherie Petersen still feels a bit of a stigma. She's not working because of economic necessity; she works because she loves it.

Petersen has been with ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City for 18 years, 15 of those years in a position that requires monthly travel. It hasn't been easy, especially when her two sons, now 14 and 11, were young.

She missed birthdays and milestones and couldn't pass certain stores in the airport without being hit with a wave of tear-inducing "mommy guilt."

Yet she was comforted by knowing that her sons were at home with her husband, Paul, who had a much more flexible schedule as an RN, for years working nights while staying with the kids during the day. He's the better "stay-at-home mom" anyway, Petersen said, because he is the more nurturing, gentle parent.

"Every person is unique and everybody has different strengths," she said. "Knowing myself, knowing my strengths, I think that being a stay-at-home mom my kids wouldn't thrive as much."

While their lives are slightly unconventional by some people's standards — Petersen's boys get their own breakfasts and turn in their homework days early because they have to get mom's help before she leaves for work-related travel — it's a system that they feel is best for their family.

Yet helping others see that is more difficult, Petersen said, adding that discussions about working mothers in her LDS Relief Society meetings (a women's church group) are "always interesting."

"I raise my hand and say, 'I think we're all given personal revelation. Isn't that part of the gospel?'" Petersen said, quoting herself. "'What if I happen to be one of those people who have had it strongly confirmed to me that I am doing what's best for my family, and that my family is well cared for?'"

For Jeanette Bennett, ensuring her family is well cared for also looks different than traditional "Mormon motherhood."

"I don't bake bread," she said, "and no one has ever asked me for a recipe; I'm just not that lady. I feel like I've come more to terms with, this is who I am, and I really am trying to do a good job of both roles."

"Both roles" means mother of four and editor of Utah Valley Magazine, which she and her husband, Matt, started 11 years ago.

In the beginning, the couple worked from home, dividing duties to ensure that both the kids and the business could flourish. As the magazine grew and moved out of their home, the couple got more creative in their scheduling and relied on babysitters a bit more.

Bennett occasionally worked from home, though she often felt guilty for working on the computer rather than building block towers. Yet, looking back, she's seen how the business has provided learning and income opportunities for her family that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

"I never said (work) is more important than family, because I don't believe it is," she said. "But I do believe there are women who can do both. It's not easy, but I think some women can. For me, I'm someone who wants to. I like to. I feel like it's part of who I am."

Other women, however, have chosen to leave high-paying jobs to stay home with their kids. Jane Clayson Johnson, for example, was at the pinnacle of a TV news career as co-host of CBS' "Early Show" when she decided to walk away. She had an apartment at Trump Tower, a limo that carried her to work every day, and makeup and wardrobe people who helped her get ready for the show each morning.

"Now I drive a mini-van," she told the Deseret News last year. "I clean my toilets. I drive the car pool — I show up with no makeup and drive the kids to school."

"...There have been occasions when I would be cleaning up yet another mess in the kitchen and I would look at the TV and see an old friend or someone I had known at CBS or ABC, and see them globe-trotting or covering a big story or interviewing someone interesting, and I would be there on my hands and knees and wonder, what have I done? (But) I wouldn't trade it, and I would make the same choice in the same way at the same time. No regrets."

But Johnson, who is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, understands that not every woman can make the choice she did.

"Every woman makes her own decisions about her life based on her circumstances and her own desires," she said. "A lot of women don't have a choice. Their situations are different and they can't do what I did. Sometimes these choices come with judgment. I don't ever assume judgment of any other woman's choice."

Abbott's smile never fades as she scans carts full of potatoes, mayonnaise, Pepsi, orange juice, eggs and Twizzlers. Her friendly chitchat with shoppers is accented by the beep of her cash register and the continual chirping of the overhead speaker with calls for a manager on aisle 14 or 6.

"Whatever you are, be the best you can be," she says, on a rare pause between customers. She has learned to be happy with what she's doing, but it's still an imperfect situation.

"Even if I were at a job I liked, I'd still feel bad being away from my kids," she says. "That's just who I am."

Abbott has worked, out of necessity, most of her married life. She was pregnant and married by 19, but as children number two and three came, she insisted to her husband, Blair, that she needed to be at home, rather than taking incoming calls for Sears Teleservice.

Though she was a stay-at-home mom, home changed frequently as they bounced around the states and even over to Germany for Blair's deployments. After he was injured and went on disability for several years, she returned to a string of jobs that included a receptionist and a substitute teacher.

She started working full time at Macey's two years ago when Blair's company went through layoffs, and now that the couple is divorcing and she has custody of the kids, she's finding herself as the primary breadwinner once again.

"It's overwhelming," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm worried about paying the bills. I'm worried that I'm not going to have enough time with my kids."

Sixteen-year-old Morgan has stepped up to fill in when mom's not around, especially to help with David, who has Asperger's syndrome, but she admits she doesn't like her mom in the workforce.

"I like it when she's here," the teen says simply.

Abbott would love to stay home and be the traditional mother who bakes cookies and spends time in the garden, no matter how old fashioned that may seem.

"The moms who get a job because they want a break from kids, I don't understand that," she said. "I would much rather be hanging with my kids than be here (at Macey's). I guess I get a little irritated that (other women) would choose to leave their family. But if that's what they enjoy…" her voice trails off. "I just don't understand."


If every child is different, then so is every mother, and any attempts to describe "the perfect mother" just end up promoting damaging comparisons and even depression.

Far too many mothers, especially working moms, already feel that despite their best efforts, they're failing, or at least falling short of what society, their neighbors, or even their family members expect. And whether those expectations are expressed or merely imagined doesn't matter — it's still not the support these women crave.

Janet Frank remembers a few comments from relatives that were meant to be kind, but came across as slightly cutting.

There was, "Oh, your children just want to be with you so much," and "It would be so nice if you could stay home." But what Frank, spokeswoman for Intermountain Healthcare in Utah County, heard was: "You never spend any time with your children because you're working."

Frank has worked since she finished college, going from a newlywed who was excited to use her degree to a single mother who had to use her degree to support herself and her young son.

Even after she remarried, Frank kept working — continuously grateful she had gained skills that she could use to support herself and her children.

"I've always felt like I was blessed with talents, and I've been lucky enough to have jobs that let me develop those talents," Frank said, her voice choked with emotion. "So even though I've had to go to work, I've always gone to a job that I've really loved. (That) means I can go to work, I can enjoy it, I can feel like I'm contributing and then come home and be happy, and be what I need to be to raise a happy family."

A soon-to-be published study, "Depression Risk among Mothers of Young Children: The Role of Employment Preferences, Labor Force Status and Job Quality," found that "the impact of working for pay or staying home on women's risk of depression depends on mothers' preferences and on their job quality," according to a briefing paper on the study prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Mothers in high-quality jobs report fewer depressive symptoms than women in low-quality jobs, even if they don't want to be there. And stay-at-home moms generally exhibit depressive symptoms only if they want to work for pay.

"The study is also important because it reveals the inaccuracies of arguments that all women should work for pay or that all women should stay at home," researchers wrote. "It's not as simple as these one-size-fits-all arguments suggest. The actual situation, desire, and job quality all matter."

Rebecca Calderwood has a great, high-quality job as a middle-school counselor in northern Virginia, but as great as it is, it's still not the stay-at-home mom job she really wants.

Living outside of Utah, Calderwood says she doesn't feel the external pressure that she believes exists in the predominantly Mormon state, though there's plenty of emotional turmoil within.

"I feel the pressure that I'm not where I should be," the 31-year-old mother of two says. "I thought all growing up, I'll get my degree, then have kids (and stay home). I don't know that anyone else is judging me, but I'm really hard on myself."

Calderwood's husband, Shaun struggled to find work in today's economy, but finally got an offer from the federal government. The only catch is he's still waiting for his background check to clear, and it's been nine months. So he works a few nights a week at a restaurant and caddies at a golf course on the weekends, watching 3-year-old Ella and 8-month old Amelia during the day while Calderwood pulls in a consistent paycheck.

"For both of us, he's always wanted to be the primary breadwinner and I've always wanted to be the one at home," she said. "We talk about that a lot, how our roles are reversed right now, and the strain that puts on our marriage and our family."

"It's hard," she continued. "It's probably the hardest our lives have ever been. But I guess we just try to appreciate the blessings."

Walking into the kitchen at 4 p.m., Abbott and the kids are greeted by the smell of slow-cooking meat — ribs she tossed in the slow cooker at 6:40 this morning.

The ceramic cooking device is her best friend, she confesses, because after a long shift at work, there's usually not much energy left for cooking.

As the kids shed their backpacks and head for the fridge, Abbott asks them about the laundry.

"You guys could be really helpful and fold it for me," she tells them as she starts scrubbing potatoes. "I'd be so happy I might even let you watch TV as you fold it."

They mumble their agreement and head downstairs, arms laden with clothes.

Emotions are a bit heightened lately, ever since Abbott served the divorce papers and moved herself and the kids to her parent's house, just a few blocks away. Though she's in a comfortable place, she's admittedly frazzled as she waits for the court to decide who gets the house. In the meantime, the kids go home to see their dad after school and on the weekends.

At 4:29, Abbott coaxes David upstairs to start his homework, and with a freshly sharpened pencil in one hand and a cheese stick in the other, he finally begins.

He avoids eye contact and frequently furrows his brow as he hunches over one of his many blank assignments, writing slowly. He is in sixth grade, but often acts more like a kindergartener, with the occasional temper tantrum and a hypersensitivity to noises, tastes and textures.

His Asperger's syndrome also makes it difficult for him to concentrate in school, and he is significantly bothered by handwriting. He finishes a few lines, stares out the window for a minute, and then asks for help. If he asks appropriately, Abbott will take dictation from him.

"The toucans tell each other apart by the color of their bills," he tells Abbott while nibbling on a cheese stick.

"Toucans eat lots and lots of berries and occasionally eggs," he says for the next answer.

"How do you spell occasionally?" Abbott asks patiently, willing to help, but refusing to coddle her son.

"You know," he chides her, a half-smile slipping across his face.

"I know, but if you're using big words, I want you to spell it," she tells him.

Today is a good homework day, and together they fly through the assignments with no outbursts or meltdowns. Other days, it's a battle of wills that leaves Abbott even more drained.

"There are lots of adults with Asperger's who have families, and succeed," she says after David leaves for a 10-minute break. "And there are some who struggle. Right now, I just hope he can graduate from high school."

Education is a big deal for Abbott, who knows the difference it makes in someone's life.

She has already emphasized college with Morgan, wanting more for her daughter than she has.

"While Macey's is a great place to work," Abbott says with a sad smile, "it's not the best career for a mom with three kids."


Several years ago, Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a non-profit research center that studies the changes in workplace, family and community organized a study where they asked 1,023 children from 8- to 18-years-old what they would change about how their parents' work affected their lives.

Thirty-four percent of kids wished that their mothers could be less stressed and tired when they came home, and 27.5 percent wished the same for their dads. Yet only 2 percent of parents guessed that their children would make that wish, instead guessing that their children would wish for more time with the parent.

"We're really focused on should she or shouldn't she (work)," Galinksy said. "(But we're) not focused on what (she's) like when (she) walks in that door from work."

"Overall, the research reveals that what matters most is how children are parented," she continued. "It's who the mother is as a person, not that she works, that tends to have more of an impact on children."

Knowing that, it's in the best interest of businesses to show their employees that they respect the sacrifices of working mothers, through things like paid maternity leave, on-site child care, flexible work weeks, telecommuting and equal advancement opportunities for women.

It's a lesson every business must learn, because "women's participation in all segments of our society is a given," said Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a feminist activist, author and co-founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women. "It's not going to change. Women are not going back to just the home. We're going to play a role in our society and people have to come to terms with that, accept it and move on."

Sitting on the couch in her mother's living room, Abbott talks about how she is moving on.

Slowly, she says. One day at a time.

In a rare, long-term glimpse ahead, the 36-year-old sees herself in school, pursuing a career that will provide more for her children. Maybe culinary arts, she muses, but quickly tosses the idea aside, saying she would never make any money.

It's hard to start over, but the motivating dream is to someday own her own home, complete with flowers in the front and a garden out back.

Until then, she'll keep ringing up groceries, filling the slow cooker and helping with homework in a blend of motherhood and making ends meet.

"I don't know if I'll ever say that 'I love going to work,'" Abbott said. "But I'm already becoming more accepting of the fact that I'm going to have to suck it up and do it. I miss the time with the kids, but it helps that they're older. I don't have little ones at home so I'm not missing out on those first words or first steps that I (missed) when I was first married and working. But it's still hard."