There is a mom in a pink sweater holding a cute-as-a-button child who is playing with her necklace (and who hopefully didn’t gag her mother with the necklace after the snapshot was taken). The bold headline over the mom’s shoulder: “The New Mommy Track: More Mothers are Finding Smart Ways to Blend Work and Family. How You Can, Too.” The word “New” is in pink. The last line encouraging us moms that we can do the smart blending thing if only we set our minds to it is highlighted in white.
Inside the September 3 issue of U.S. News & World Report are more adorable photos, including one where you can see a mom sitting at a keyboard only from the chest down, with her toddler son standing beside her, binky and bottle next to the keyboard. Later, we see that same mom one-handedly using the computer while cradling a baby in the other arm, her toddler son playing at a train table in the background. That photo is next to a larger one of the mom from the magazine cover making cookies with her daughter at the mom’s bakery.
The headlines, like the photos, offer wholesome, tantalizing promises. Over the main story , there’s this headline: “More mothers win flextime at work, and hubbies’ help (really!) at home.” Next is a brief piece: “The Age of the ‘Alpha Mom :’ A new wave of advertising is showing women in control.” That’s followed by another short article: “How Moms Get on Track: You’ll need to pick jobs carefully, pay dues, then negotiate .” The collection of U.S. News stories focuses on what the magazine describes as: “. . . [A] new generation of American mothers who are rejecting the ‘superwoman’ image from the 1980s as well as the ‘soccer mom’ stereotype from the 1990s. Mothers today are more likely to negotiate flexible schedules at work and demand fuller participation of fathers in child-raising than previous generations did, giving them more time to pursue their own careers and interests.”
However, like a wet blanket in this six-page spread of mommy-power goodness and can-do spirit is this enlarged quote, which also has some words highlighted in pink: “Only 3% of companies let most employees work part of the week at home sometimes.”
There it is.
Therein lies the rub.
I’m not trying to sound like a negative Nelly. I like the “atta-girl” boost one gets from reading articles about triumphant women as much as the next gal. I adore seeing positive profiles of strong, female role models whose lives represent myriad work-life choices. I think it’s fantastic to highlight companies whose owners actually believe that if you stick by a woman employee through her childbearing years and the challenging-yet-fleeting period of early parenthood, she’ll likely reward you with loyalty and cut your turnover costs. And perhaps, by focusing on pro-family work arrangements, other business owners might be tempted to try out similar flextime arrangements with their employees.
But, after reading this U.S. News & World Report cover package – complete with the cheery pink headlines – I felt frustrated because, oftentimes, it’s not easy to land a job that affords mothers flextime, allows them to take time off after the birth of children, welcomes them back and provides training seminars to those whose skills need to be sharpened, despite the U.S. News cover headline which promised to tell me how I too can blend my work and family just like the moms in the article. The difficulty in finding such a job was exemplified by the story of Heidi Leigh, a 34-year-old former theater sales manager who tried to shift her schedule back a measly half-hour so she could fetch her son from daycare at dinnertime. Her request was denied by her supervisor because she said, “He wouldn’t allow it because he didn’t want other people to do the same thing.” She wound up quitting and taking a position selling ads from home. “She works in the mornings, before her husband leaves for his afternoon shift at a pharmaceutical company,” the article said. For every lawyer whose firm allows employees to work flexible hours and still remain on track for partner like the one featured at the beginning of the U.S. News story, there’s a Heidi Leigh, or a woman working as a store clerk or as a waitress who has no say in her schedule. “Women working in low-skilled jobs . . . usually find flexibility only by lucking into employers who accept it,” author Leslie Morgan Steiner told the magazine.
This reminded me of the uber-depressing article, the July 29 New York Times Sunday Magazine  piece which essentially described the ability of American parents to achieve a work-life balance as every parent for herself, in contrast to public policies in Europe which mandate paid leave and subsidize child care. The Times article not only highlighted several parents who sued their employers for discrimination after they were demoted or fired because having a family complicated their ability to work, but also cited a May 2007 study in the American Journal of Sociology which found that “mothers were consistently viewed as less competent and less committed [to their jobs] and were held to higher performance and punctuality standards” and “were 79 percent less likely to be hired and, if hired, would be offered a starting salary $11,000 lower than non-mothers.”
While the U.S. News pieces were, on balance, positive about the fact that women are starting to gain traction when it comes to taking control over their lives, creating their own rules when it comes to career and family, when viewed alongside the New York Times article and that pesky little statistic about only 3 percent of companies allowing telecommuting, it’s difficult not to acknowledge that we’ve still got a very long way to go.