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Beyond the “Mom Economy”

The Mom Economy:
The Mothers’ Guide to Getting Family Friendly Work

By Elizabeth Wilcox
Berkley Books, 2003 (paperback)

What’s a mother to do when she's determined to prioritize caring for her children and family but wants or needs to work for pay? Answer: do whatever it takes to land family friendly work in an employment culture where good jobs with part-time or flexible hours are few and far between. Career coach Elizabeth Wilcox provides a straightforward, well organized, step-by-step workbook to help mothers assess their personal and financial needs and figure out which type of employment arrangement is the best match for their individual skills and life goals.

While the tone of The Mom Economy is positive and optimistic throughout, Wilcox isn't trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes about the limited options and irreducible obstacles that women (and men) seeking family friendly work can expect to encounter. Want to find family friendly work that maximizes the use of those highly developed job skills? Wilcox admits that might not be possible. How about hanging onto some of the prestige or authority you had in your pre-motherhood career? Don’t count on it. Would you like a job that offers opportunities for advancement? Better not get your hopes up. Looking for part-time or flexible work with wages and benefits comparable to your previous level of compensation? You might have to pass on that, too, if you'e really serious about landing a family friendly job.

At times it seems as though The Mom Economy is simply Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood turned inside out and repackaged as a self-help book to prepare mothers for bearing the brunt of the unreasonable workplace practices and cultural biases that lead to work/life conflict in the first place. Wilcox can't be faulted for offering practical advice to mothers who need immediate help with the challenge of balancing work and family, and her profiles of isolated success stories will be encouraging to those satisfied with improving the situation in the short term, one mother at a time. What’s conspicuously absent in The Mom Economy is an acknowledgement that the individual work/family crisis is part of a much larger social problem -- one that is not likely to be resolved through the random accumulation of personalized solutions.

Missed opportunity for consciousness-raising aside, The Mom Economy is a useful guide for working women -- or those planning a return to the workforce after a caregiving hiatus -- who want a job that will let them to put motherhood first. Wilcox’s book is well researched and skillfully written; the section covering different types of family friendly employment arrangements (full-time flexible schedule, part-time, telecommuting, and self-employment) is especially informative. Still, this is not a book that will be helpful to everyone. Almost all the employed mothers profiled in The Mom Economy come from professional backgrounds, and the book deals only glancingly with the tremendous challenge of finding family friendly work in the service and manufacturing sectors.

In fact, the not-so-subtle message of The Mom Economy is that in order to find a good job with good pay that fits your personal needs and uses your talent to the best advantage, you’d better have an extra-tasty carrot to dangle in front of prospective employers. Wilcox offers one example after another suggesting that, as far as family friendliness is concerned, plum jobs are most likely to go to women with advanced education, a flexible and especially desirable skill set, and star-quality performance in a previous job. Those in the rank and file -- in other words, the majority of women in the contemporary workforce -- may be plain out of luck.

Of course, Wilcox is not to blame for this sorry situation, and rectifying the obvious inequalities in the family friendly work equation is not the objective of her book. But for all the good intentions and well-informed advice that’s to be found in the pages of The Mom Economy, it's the degree of sacrifice required to secure family friendly employment that stands out in such stark relief. Wilcox’s guiding premise is that most women make these trade-offs willingly, and that finding the right work arrangement -- even when the nature and/or quality of an employment situation is less than optimal -- can lead to a better and more satisfying life, and she's probably right. It's to her credit that Wilcox resists minimizing the unfavorable conditions that confront the typical family-friendly job seeker. Whether we like it or not, The Mom Economy simply tells it like it is and serves up some realistic advice on how to work the system.

Still, one longs for something more proactive. Perhaps one day Ms. Wilcox will write “Beyond the Mom Economy,” a handbook for mothers who want to change the way we think about work in our society so that family-friendly jobs are the norm for workers at all levels of employment, rather than a special exception for only the best and brightest.

A last word: I was particularly impressed that Wilcox rigorously avoids resorting to the assumption that all mothers seeking family friendly schedules are secondary wage earners in dual-earner couples. This enlightened context makes The Mom Economy considerably more palatable than many other recent books offering advice to mothers on balancing work and family.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
October 2003

Also of interest:

The Mom Economy web site

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