Who You Calling Cheap?

by Vicki Larson


When my first-born started kindergarten, a moment that I met with a mix of joy and dread, I did what a lot of my former career women-turned-SAHM peers did — I volunteered at his school.


After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, even a tired mommy’s mind.


I took on a few jobs that weren’t terribly taxing — publicity, newsletter editor, field trip coordinator, art room helper; it was all the energy I had with an active 5-year-old and an infant at home. But I was in awe of the powerhouse women who volunteered for the big jobs, ones that required accounting and weekly meetings and intensive planning and fundraising. They were women who had no doubt been six-figure CEOs, stockbrokers and lawyers in their former lives, and who were now using all their business savvy to help their kids’ school — for free.


But when I discovered not too long ago that many of today’s young powerhouse SAHMs are using those same hard-earned MBA and Ph.D. skills for quick, small projects for small pay — the so-called mommy SWAT teams, "smart women with available time” — I cringed a bit.


That’s because the Wall Street Journal article in which I read about the trend used what I consider an unfortunate word — cheap.


“Skilled workers taking temp projects isn't new, of course. What's different about these teams is that they're available on short notice because the women are usually at home; they tend to work cheap because their main motive is to keep their skills fresh; and they're often extraordinarily well-qualified, having left the work force voluntarily when their careers were on the ascent,” wrote Sue Shellenbarger in “How Stay-at-Home Moms are Filling an Executive Niche.”


Now, working cheap is something that comes naturally for me. When I was still in college, I made a decision that doomed me to be a card-carrying member of the working poor — choosing journalism over PR and then sticking with it even when others were becoming dot-comers.


I have never regretted it, even now, when the newspaper industry has decided to abandon me and I face an uncertain future. Working for cheap comes with the territory, and no one ever pretends it will be otherwise.


When I stayed home to raise my two boys, my limited idle time was available to others for free, as a school volunteer; “cheap,” as a freelance writer; and at the going hourly rate, as an on-call copy editor for two local newspapers. Just like today’s mommy SWATs, it wasn’t so much about the money — it was about keeping my “skills fresh.”


Now that I’m divorced and back in the workforce full-time, I can see how my years away from my career hurt me financially. And by the time I came back fully into the working world, those skills were anything but fresh; everything changes so quickly nowadays. But at least when I was working as an on-call temp, I was paid what I was worth.


The Wall Street Journal article’s “cheap” reference got a number of female bloggers and their readers upset, too.