What kind of work works for working mothers? In surveys by both Pew Research Center and the Institute for Family Studies, a majority of mothers say they’d prefer not to work full time. Schools certainly seem to assume we all work part time, with summers off and kids released long before the end of the typical work day. 

My ideal scenario would be for both my husband and I to work complementary part-time jobs, with plenty of time at home to be parents. In her 2021 book “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity,” economic historian Claudia Goldin examines why that balance is so hard to strike. 

Men and women face a persistent pay gap, but, in most cases, it’s no longer the result of explicit discrimination. Women without children tend to match comparable men’s earnings (whether or not the men have children). It’s when women become mothers that their earnings take a hit and never recover. As Goldin describes, it can be hard for women to return to work part time. What she terms “greedy jobs” make it simpler for one parent — usually the dad — to do most of the paid work, even when that’s not what the parents prefer.  

Goldin defines “greedy” jobs as ones where the pay per hour rises substantially with hours worked. Someone working a 50-hour week at a greedy job makes much more than twice someone doing similar work for 25 hours a week. She calls them greedy jobs because the employer would always like more of your time, and they’re willing to pay enough to make it tempting.

Greedy jobs are often high-touch, concierge-like jobs. The clients of a greedy job employer want guaranteed access to a particular person, whether it’s their banker, their lawyer or another professionalized service worker. When one spouse takes a greedy job, it makes sense for the other parent to take a big step back from working to make it easier for the greedy job worker to take on 50-70 hour weeks. The family comes out ahead financially when they commit to an uneven workload — there’s much more money available with one person working 60 hours at a greedy job than with both people working 30-hour weeks.

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Greedy jobs lose their teeth when the work becomes genericized. If different workers can be treated as interchangeable by clients and employers, the pay goes down, but the pressure for the job to be totalizing also eases off. 

Goldin traces the way that shift played out for pharmacists. When most pharmacies were independently operated, a pharmacist managed his own business. It was a model more like Mr. Gower in “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a single-man shop. He was the one who had to work nights and weekends, or find someone to cover for him. 

As Goldin chronicles, when chains like CVS and Walgreens began replacing neighborhood, single-proprietor pharmacies, many more women became pharmacists. Today, more than half of all pharmacy graduates are women, and the pay gap in the field has dwindled to almost nothing. With a big chain doing bigger business, it made sense to staff teams of pharmacists, and for someone in the back office to worry about schedules. It was possible to be a part-time pharmacist or take leave in a way that a sole proprietor could not. 

But when workers become more interchangeable, there’s something lost for the customer. I don’t have a relationship with my pharmacist, and I don’t know anyone who does. I see CVS Minute Clinic nurses for flexible care more often than I see my GP, and this helps me get seen quickly while working around my job and child care responsibilities. But if I were seeing a doctor who knew me, I could get antibiotics for an ear infection without having to go through a full medical history each time. And for me, that “getting to know you” means having to detail the lives and deaths of the six children I miscarried every time I go to a new office.

The alternative to greedy jobs looks like genericized jobs, and they’re not necessarily good for either workers or customers and clients. Employees have less leverage with their employer, since they’re replaceable by design. What starts as flex work on the employee’s schedule can easily become short-notice shift scheduling for the employer’s convenience. In a 2022 survey of over 4,400 pharmacists, 75% said their pharmacy was understaffed and overworked to the point of threatening patient safety. On the other side of the counter, patients who get used to seeing pharmacists as pill-dispensers, not people, are more likely to lash out

I had picked up Goldin’s book to learn about the range of ways other mothers have balanced career and family. For now, I work 30 hours a week at my job, clinging by my fingernails to the one hour a week that puts me above the threshold for insurance and benefits. I work from home, and my hours are flexible. The disruptions of COVID-19 forced more employers to adapt to remote and asynchronous work, which tends to help me and other parents of young kids.

But I closed the book with a bigger, unresolved question about balancing life at home and on the job. It seems like the easiest way to safeguard room to be a person at home is to accept being a widget at work. I want the flexibility to share a workload across a team, so each of us can take time off to care for sick relatives, help aging parents or simply meet our children when school is out. But I want mothers — and fathers, too — to be able to look for that kind of flexibility without needing to be alienated from their work in order to make it interchangeable. Reading Goldin gave me a better sense of what to fight for, but it will take a big rethinking of our economy for my daughters to not face a choice between greedy and genericized jobs. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.