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With many schools and childcare facilities shut down, families have to find ways to balance paid work and childcare. Often that ends up meaning that Mom reduces her working hours. As sociologists Gretchen Webber and Christine Williams explain, that shift looks very different depending on whether she’s a lawyer or a cashier, but either way it often involves significant sacrifice.

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In 2002 and 2003, Webber interviewed dozens of mothers working part time from two distinct groups. The first was highly educated women who had previously worked full-time schedules at professional jobs. These workers had negotiated special accommodations to reduce their working hours. The second group was mothers working in jobs where part-time hours were the norm—often in the service sector and generally low-paid.

Most of the part-time professionals saw their schedules as a perk they’d earned through exceptional performance. As one accountant told Webber, “I think it’s really cool that they let me do this. I’m considerate of them because they’re so good to me.” These women planned to return to full-time schedules and tended to view dropping down to part time as a temporary career sacrifice. One book editor said she wouldn’t be able to rise to the executive level until she returned to full-time work, “But I’ve kind of resigned myself to the so-called ‘mommy track’ but that’s okay with me.”

The mothers in traditional part-time jobs tended to see their jobs not as a slower career track but simply as a way to help provide for their families week to week. “I wasn’t thinking about a career, it was getting work, whatever money I could bring in and what the kids need,” one cashier and aerobics instructor said. “It’s basically you put yourself on hold.”

Many of these mothers were irritated at the low pay common in part-time employment. “It’s like a third of what you’d get if you worked those hours full-time,” one retail worker said. “It’s so strange.” A number of the mothers in low-wage, part-time jobs said they’d actually prefer not to work for money at all. “If [my husband] made enough money, for sure I would stay home and I probably would have more kids by now,” one receptionist said. “Because when I am at work, all I think about is how I want to be home.”

One thing both sets of mothers agreed on is that the difficulties of their positions—whether they focused on slowed career advancement or low pay—were the product of their own choice to spend more time with their children. But Webber and Williams note that these problems are also a result of employers’ choices and legal frameworks. For example, European Union laws require more equitable treatment for part-time workers. While these policies aren’t perfect, they point to the potential for changes in external circumstances that would give mothers different choices about work and home life. During our current childcare crisis, that may be worth thinking more about.

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Gender and Society, Vol. 22, No. 6 (December 2008), pp. 752-777
Sage Publications, Inc.