Pittsburgh working moms redefine 'having it all'

Can a woman perfectly balance career and family?



Rachel Blaufeld's day usually starts at 4:30 a.m., before her kids are up. Joy Kmt, a mother of five, tries to snatch a few extra minutes' sleep before the 90-minute drive to take her kids to school. And Milissa Dodaro has a morning routine that, if disrupted, can have a ripple effect on the rest of her family's day.

If there is one commonality among working mothers in the Pittsburgh area, it's that sleep is elusive.

But there is widespread disagreement about the notion of "having it all" -- the question of whether it's possible for a working woman to perfectly balance a career and a family -- mainly because "all" means different things to different women.

A recent survey of the best states for working mothers by small business finance site WalletHub ranked Pennsylvania a dismal 42nd. Access to child care and flexible work policies are sorely lacking in the Keystone state, the survey found. While professional opportunities and work-life balance ranked a little better, there is still a lot to be done.

Jennifer Owens, executive director of the Working Mother Research Institute, part of Working Mother Media in New York City, said progress has been made for mothers in the workplace over the past 35 years. "But it's frustrating that we're still having the same discussions about the same issues," she said.

Part of the problem is that there is still great resistance in some quarters to having women in the workplace at all, Ms. Owens added.

"There's a line of thinking that, 'If we make it difficult for women to work, they'll stay home and have kids,' " she said. "But what they do is choose not to have kids. They can't see how they'll get it all done. So if we care about our birth rate, we need to make it more possible for women to support their families -- to have their families."

One of the hotter topics involving women and work of late has been the "Lean In" philosophy espoused by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Ms. Owens said the advice has some merit. It proposes women do more to assert their right to a seat at the table and to make sure their voices are heard at work.

But it isn't a solution for all problems of all working women, and the admonitions can make some women feel like no matter how hard they work or how much they speak up, they'll never be taken seriously, she said.

"It's OK to lean in," Ms. Owens said. "Just don't tip over."

'Lean In'? Well, maybe

Dawn Patton Mangine of Coraopolis is a copywriter and mother of three -- two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a 3-year-old boy. She was a stay-at-home mom for several years and got back into the workplace full time about six years ago. She's about had it with the "Lean In" crowd, because that advice fails to direct responsibility to the companies that have flawed family policies, putting the onus entirely on women to effect changes.

"The American workplace in general is not generous to employees," she said. "And male CEOs aren't writing books about trying to 'have it all.' It's all coming from women."

Ms. Mangine shared her experiences on a recent evening having just returned from her kids' soccer practice, as her giggling 3-year-old vied for her attention. "I feel very lucky, because I have a job with sick leave and a supportive husband," she said. That sick leave is going to be key in the coming weeks, as two of her kids are scheduled for minor surgeries.

She returned to the labor force because she wanted to contribute financially to her family. The latest employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2013, about 59 percent of families with children had two parents working outside the home. For many, it's a necessity to have two incomes.

Ms. Dodaro, of North Huntingdon, always imagined herself staying home when she had children, giving them the attention and mothering she lost out on. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was 13 and Ms. Dodaro herself was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, opting for a bilateral mastectomy.

"I never had a plan per se. I never said, 'I want this career.' I just knew I wanted to have kids," Ms. Dodaro said. But having a parent stay home with the kids wasn't in the cards financially for her and her husband.

"I was angry about that for a long time to be really honest," she said. "I had feelings of resentment that other mothers were able to stay home and have that security, be comfortable, because that's what I wanted."

The routine in the Dodaro household starts early, so she has enough time to get herself ready for work as a teacher in McKeesport before rousing her daughter, 13, and her son, 11. And there is the occasional wrinkle: The day her son forgot his trumpet at home, for instance, was a lesson in responsibility because she didn't have time in her schedule to retrieve it and bring it to him.

Ms. Dodaro said she likes her job, and has come to terms with the idea that working outside the home provides an example for her kids. "They are used to seeing us up and out the door, dressed and ready to go," she said. "Some days they don't feel like doing it, but they see me doing it and it shows them it's important."

Ms. Dodaro may seem like she has it all together, but she admits she sometimes lies awake at night worrying: "What if the kids get sick, what if I can't get a sub, maybe grandma can watch them, maybe my husband can do it," she said. "There's that constant worry that you always struggle with."

Ms. Blaufeld, who lives in Squirrel Hill, is the mother of two boys who writes a blog called Back n'Groove Mom, about her experiences as an entrepreneur and a mom. She said too many working mothers second-guess their choices and judge themselves too harshly.

"It's so hard not to feel as though the traditional working mom has a leg up if you're a stay-at-home mom, because they have a career and a paycheck and presumably love every moment of their job," she said.

"But vice versa, the working mom is envious of all the quality and quantity time the stay-at-home mom spends with her kids."

Ms. Blaufeld carved out a routine that has her rising much earlier than her kids, because she desperately needs that "me" time. "I think you've got to have that hour a day for yourself, so you're not losing sight of yourself as a woman, despite being a wife and mother."

'You have to work like a man'

While climbing to the top of the corporate ladder is the goal for some working mothers, plenty of others have different aspirations.

At her first job out of college, Sarah Kant was told by a male boss that if she wanted to advance quickly in her career, long hours were expected and necessary.

"He told me, 'You have to work like a man,' " Ms. Kant recalled.

For a while, she put in the 70-hour weeks, before realizing she was setting expectations with her bosses that she would always work that much. She now has a job with a Downtown company that allows her to telecommute most of the time from her home in Wexford. She is the family breadwinner, with her husband taking primary child care duties for their daughters, ages 6 and 2, which he loves.

Ms. Kant thinks the tide is turning and workplaces are slowly becoming more family friendly, though corporations are slow to adapt. Yet, she said, the lack of national paid maternity leave in the United States is baffling.

"We have less paid leave than Pakistan. Pakistan!" she said. "We either value families or we don't. Right now, it looks like we don't."

For Ms. Kmt, of McKeesport, who is self-employed, holding down the fort while her partner is deployed in Afghanistan has been difficult. She said at times it feels like she's just trying to keep her head above water.

But she is impressed with her children, ages 11, 10, 9, 7 and 5, and their coping skills.

"My children are brilliant in the way they handle things. They're resourceful, even when they struggle with some things," she said. "It is a mixed bag for them sometimes, but I want to create life for my children that's secure. I want them to know they're loved.

"And while we may not be experiencing abundance, we're not experiencing lack on a regular basis."

Ms. Dodaro said she still compares herself to other mothers sometimes, marveling at their kids' perfectly ironed clothes and how they find time to bake homemade cookies for school functions.

"I always worried about how much I felt I was making things up as I went along," she said. "I thought, 'They have their moms as examples and I didn't.'

"But I think everybody is making it up as they go along. Everyone is just doing the best they can."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412.263.1241. On Twitter: @SocialKimly.


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