In the deep quiet of a still-dark morning, Renee reaches her arm out from under her thick flowered comforter and across the bed to hit the snooze button on her alarm clock. For a few blessed (and pre-planned) minutes she avoids the wakeful classic rock blaring into her bedroom from her alarm. Renee hits the snooze button exactly three times before finally casting off her covers. She does this each morning, and each morning she sleepily thinks the same thing: “It’s too early. I was just at work two seconds ago, and I don’t want to go back already.”
Everything about Renee’s morning is structured for speed and efficiency. At 5:45, with her young son, Wade, and husband, Alan, still sleeping, Renee drags herself out of bed and sleepwalks to the shower. She brushes her teeth while the shower is warming, making sweeping circles on the mirror with her hand so she can see her reflection. Renee’s movements, though she’s thoroughly tired, are crisp, hurried and automatic–she’s repeated the routine daily for several years.
Renee knows exactly how long each of her morning tasks will take, to the minute. That, for instance, between 6 and 6:12 she needs to put on her makeup, get herself dressed, get her son’s clothes out and ready for the day, and get downstairs to the kitchen to start breakfast.
All this is done with an eye on the clock and a subtle, yet constant, worry about time. Her mind loops over the potential delays that could be ahead: “Is there going to be traffic? Am I going to get stuck behind a school bus? Is my son going to act normal when I drop him off or is he going to be stuck to my leg? Am I going to get a parking space in the office garage or am I going to have to run five blocks through the city to get to work on time?” And if there isn’t any garage parking, which happens often, then in order to be on time for work Renee has to run up six flights of stairs in heels because she doesn’t have extra time to waste waiting for an elevator. She’s done this climb more than once.
Why the stress? At her work, if Renee is late more than six times, she’s in danger of losing her job. Like many American mothers, Renee needs her income to help provide for her family. In our modern economy, where more often than not two wage earners are needed to support a family, American women now make up 46 percent of the entire paid labor force. In fact, a study released last June found that in order to maintain income levels, parents have to work more hours–two-parent families are spending 16 percent more time at work, or 500 more hours a year, than in 1979.
Despite all the media chatter about the so-called Opt-Out Revolution–and all the hand-wringing about whether working moms are good for kids–women, and mothers, are in the workplace to stay. Yet public policy and workplace structures have yet to catch up.
This Mother’s Day, why not step back and reflect about how we as a country can really help mothers like Renee? For example, the option of flextime would make a world of difference for Renee and her family. “Flextime would make a huge difference in my life because with my job function, there are busy days and late days. As long as I’m there forty hours a week and get my job done, then I don’t know why anyone would care. I don’t understand why there’s such an 8 am to 5 pm ‘law’ in my workplace.”
Seemingly mundane challenges like getting out the door in time for work and the morning commute, Renee tells us, become overwhelming when coupled with the financial anxieties that face so many families in America. Renee and Alan would like to have a second child, but they worry that they simply can’t afford one right now. “By no means do we live, or want to live, extravagantly: We just want two cars, two kids and a vacation here and there,” says Renee.