Post image for Leftovers

by Katrina on December 13, 2010

I went to a mellow birthday brunch this weekend for a friend’s 2-year-old. While Ruby picked out “Happy Birthday” on the piano and Jake pretended to drill things to the Christmas tree, I sipped coffee in the kitchen with a few other moms. As usual, the conversation turned to the questions that seem to plague all American mothers of young children (or at least the ones who have the luxury of asking these questions):

Should I quit my job? Can I afford to go part time? If I quit, will I be able to get back in later? If I don’t have a career, what will I have when the kids get older?

One of the moms had recently convinced her boss to let her do a job share so that she could reduce her hours.

“I told everyone it was about having more time with my family,” she said. “But it was also about having time for me.”

I was so glad she said that. When people heard I’d quit my job, several of them said things like, “You should be proud! You’re doing the right thing for your kids!” As if that was why I’d done it. For my kids. What I did wasn’t nearly so noble. I did it for me.

The job share mom said that when she was breastfeeding her twins, her doctor told her what foods she needed to eat to keep healthy.

“What happens if I don’t get enough of something?” she asked. “Will my babies get sick?”

“Oh no,” the doctor said. “The babies will get what they need. They’ll suck it out of you. You’re the one who won’t get what you need.”

She said that’s how she felt about working full time. Her kids got what they needed. She got the leftovers. In other words, she was getting sucked dry. That was my experience, too. Strangely, it was a relief to realize this. I wasn’t a bad mother, as I’d feared. I wasn’t ruining my kids’ lives by giving so much to my job. I was only ruining mine…

~Pssst!…Speaking of getting sucked dry, did you vote in the poll yet?~

After the birthday party, we stopped by an ornament-making party at another friend’s house. Jake napped in his stroller while Ruby, rather than decorate the styrofoam balls provided, ground one to bits and sculpted a beautiful snow scene. (That’s my girl. Transforming her destructive impulses into art.)

Meanwhile, I hung out in the kitchen with a whole different set of moms. After we’d talked about Obama and devoured the homemade fudge, the conversation, inevitably, turned to the work dilemma again. (OK, maybe I devoured the fudge. Everyone else was very ladylike and had only one piece.)

One of the women had once been a hot shot vice president of something or other. She’d managed the job stress by eating Tums by the handful, until she finally quit and had kids. She took a few years off of work to be home with her babies, and was just starting to freelance part time.

She told us her daughter came home from kindergarten recently, starry-eyed about another kid’s mom who told the class about her job making robots and sending them into outer space. The class was so inspired that they did an art project involving robots and outer space.

So my new friend was trying to think of what cool thing she does that would impress her 5-year-old.

Honey, did you notice what a great grocery list I make? I put it on the refrigerator and update it EVERY DAY.

I joined in with my own version:

Honey, do you know how clean the laundry is? Have you noticed that we never run out of milk or clean underwear anymore?


But instead of getting quietly snarky, as many of us might be tempted to do, the grocery list mom did something very open-hearted. She emailed the robot-making mom, told her how impressed her daughter was, and how jealous she was that she didn’t do work that was nearly as impressive.

And the robot mom wrote back saying how jealous she was that the grocery list mom was able to work part time.

So, the grass is always greener…

We keep talking about it at every gathering, about this mommy work dilemma, because it’s a puzzle we’re trying to solve, a Rubix cube we keep turning around in our hands. The solution seems tantalizingly close, but one colored square always seems to be on the wrong side.

I don’t understand why we can’t have both things. Why can’t we make robots that go into outer space, and do it in less than 30 hours a week? Why can’t we put in a good day’s work in six hours, instead of eight, or 10 or 12? Why does work have to suck so many of us dry?

I’ll leave you with a statistic, because you know how much I love statistics:

Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries. Whether we have kids or not, we’re all trying to live on leftovers.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }


Love your posts. I am always on the lookout for more stuff from you. It hits right on.


Breadwinner Mama

To be fair, I think we have to look at our expectations for our standard of living to explain some of these problems. When I look at what I expect from my life versus what I had growing up in the ’80s, I see two very different pictures.
How many of us get a new car every 3 to 5 years? Do we really need 3500+ sq ft homes or 50-inch TVs? Do our kids need entire rooms full of giant battery-operated toys and $300 game systems with a dozen $50 games? Are the things we are killing ourselves to afford worth it?
If we scaled back our material expectations, we could scale back our salaries, which would open up a whole new world of options.
I’m not advocating going off the grid and making your own soap in a cabin in the woods. I’m just saying that in the last 30 years, those of us with the luxury of asking the questions (as Katrina wisely put it) may have lost sight of the difference between “want” and “need.”



Many of us already live without those things. Many of us are working to afford the basics. We have four people in a small 2 bedroom house, a 10 year old car that we share, and work primarily to keep ourselves fed, clothed, and the car functioning. We have very little left over at the end of the month, and I get tired of other moms pontificating about how if we didn’t feel the need to live the “high life” every family could have a stay at home mom. And, even if I could stay home, I wouldn’t. When I tell my daughter she can be anything she wants when she grows up, I want her to be able to look at me as a role model.



@Ana Thank you for the encouragement!

@Breadwinner Mama
Agreed! We need to look at the tradeoff–time versus money. Which is worth more to us? What’s the breaking point? But there’s more to this equation.

When we give up our careers, some funny stuff happens with
-our confidence/self-esteem (er…I’m speaking from personal experience here)
-our ability to be financially independent (motherhood = biggest factor in poverty in old age)
-our marriage/relationships (power dynamic can get really icky when one person makes money and the other doesn’t)

We tend to talk about work/life problems in terms of personal decisions, but it’s not a coincidence that every time I end up at a gathering of mothers, this is what we talk about. We need better options for part time and flexible work, for starters.



I really agree. I’m not working now, and we just make ends meet, though my husband gripes about our 21” t.v.-about 10 years old. But more than the money, I miss working, using my brain, being creative, being able to identify myself as something more than a stay-at-home mom, although my need to do so probably reflects on my own self-esteem issues. I was happiest when I taught part-time. Now those jobs are hard to find, and as youve said, Katrina, society pays the price. I’ve seen a number of really good teachers quit working when they were weren’t allowed to job-share or simply cut back their hours. We do need better options.




Spot-on as usual. I have recently coined the term “Mama Capitalists” on my blog to explore options and unique ways to evolve our current system. I fundamentally believe any system that leaves it’s mothers powerless & dependent will fail. Fortunately, we are living in a time where mothers are more wealthy and powerful than any other in history. We need to get creative.

While I agree with Breadwinner Mama completely there is the other half of the equation: the fact that our economy requires us to be good spenders for it to function and the money to move. It is a highly flawed process.

Recently, I got into a discussion with a very nice man who believed it was unfair to highly compensate a mother for working less hours. I pointed out to him that Mothers need things more than women without children. Those needs perpetuate commerce. I’m still awaiting his e-mail response.

The fact that we take the cut in pay means we get to keep places like Walmart in business who simply take our money and pay workers overseas. It’s a race to the bottom if ever I saw one.

Katrina, keep it up! I love your site!



The majority of working moms in the U.S. have few choices but to work a steady, full time job to sustain their families – single moms, moms who don’t have the education or experience to work for themselves – or who wouldn’t dream of leaving a job with health insurance, and financial stability by taking on a job with uncertain income. Yet, they have the same dilemma of little time for themselves and the challenge of raising kids while providing for them. I so enjoy this blog, but want to keep it real for the majority of moms who shoulder it all.



Yup. Absolutely right. Thank you for pointing this out. That’s why I say those who have the “luxury” of working part time or quitting. The Joan William’s report I’m always quoting talks about the “missing middle”–those who don’t have the option to stop, but aren’t eligible for many social programs that would ease their financial burden a little. But I also want to point out that the U.S. has the highest proportion of FULL TIME working women of any developed country, and studies show a lot of these women would prefer to work part time but their employer won’t provide that option (or it would mean losing health insurance).


Breadwinner Mama

I find it interesting that you automatically assumed that mothers would be the ones to scale back or give up a career. I work full time and my husband cares for our 2 children full time – by choice. The dynamic does change when one partner is working and the other is not, but if you truly act as partners, being a single income family does not have to come at the expense of someone’s self-esteem.
Yes, the process that requires constant buying to maintain a stable economy is flawed. But living by the same old rules will only perpetuate it. When I talk about making less money, I am talking about buying less stuff – not just shopping at Walmart so we can pay lower prices for the same pile of possessions. That is absolutely a race to the bottom. One that is, sadly, well on its way.

I am the first person to stand up and say America is screwed up and a lot of policies need to change. But I also believe our individual choices make a difference.
The truth is, no one can “have it all.” Something is lost and something is gained in every decision we make. The goal is to do our damnedest to make sure those decisions are informed and the consequences are fair to women and men, moms and dads, gay and straight, single or married parents – everyone.



You’re right–dads can cut back too, and some do. But the reality is that most of the time, when one parent scales back career for family, it’s more often the mom than the dad.

It’s a vicious circle. There’s a gender pay gap, which means statistically men have ability to make more money, which then puts pressure on men to be the main provider and work the longer hours, which then puts pressure on women to cut back because someone has to get the kids…We get trapped in traditional roles this way.

But how cool would it be if men and women could work 30 hour weeks?



It would be extraordinarily cool if everyone could work 30 hour weeks and have healthy food, a house with almost as many bedrooms as family members, a safe neighborhood, and good free schools. I’m sure that people in China, Argentina, and the Central African Republic would love the same thing. The French seem to think that if they go on strike often enough they can continue to have (virtually) that. Unfortunately in the modern world it’s just not sustainable. That said, I think one factor that creates extra pressure in the US is that our school system is so variable (and often crappy). There wouldn’t be the incredible premium on housing prices in the “better” school districts, or the pressure some feel to pay for private school if you just knew that wherever you lived you could send your kids to a reasonably decent school. I don’t know any family who thinks they need a second income to buy more things, but I know lots who think they need a second income to live in a safe neighborhood with decent schools.



30 hour weeks would change everything for the better in my view. The strains on the systems we have in place to compensate for the time we are expected to spend at work would certainly be lessened.



A year or two ago, I read “The Truth about the Mommy Wars.” (http://www.amazon.com/Truth-Behind-Mommy-Wars-Decides/dp/1580051294) Fabulous book! And what it really showed me is that there is an incredible lack of stimulating, rewarding, and fairly paid part-time work out there. Moms and Dads both crave it, but “the system” isn’t providing it.

I’m hoping that in the next year or two I’ll have the option to scale down to 30 hours/week – so I can have some more me time and some more Mommy time. But I’m not convinced I can make it happen, and if I can, still be fairly paid and not “punished” in the long run for the “break.”



I’d like to suggest that what you’re all bumping up against is the unequal distribution of wealth in this country (i.e.: between genders and most especially between upper class and middle class). Increasingly, most of the wealth in this country goes to ever-increasing top wage earners while everyone else stays the same. The cost of living (even for the basics) goes up and everyone else’s wages stay the same. And I suspect that THAT is the true obstacle to being able to raise a family and provide for it.



Chiming in here to say that I’m one of those without a choice when it comes to scaling back, or quitting, my job. We are already living simply and have none of the new gadgets, cars and homes. What I don’t understand is where/when the tipping point will be reached? How many of us have to be in this untenable “missing middle” space before people will stop supporting the current system? My family needs it to be sooner than later.



Thanks for your comment, Jen. I suspect we’re nearing that tipping point. I’ll be writing more about that on the blog.


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