Do you work? Posing that question to a group of mothers can be the verbal equivalent of throwing a Molotov cocktail.
For those unfamiliar with the long-running “mommy war,” a flare-up between those who work outside the home and stay-at-home mothers recently exploded on the U.S. political scene. In a discussion about the economic challenges women face, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen stated that Ann Romney, wife of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, “never worked a day in her life.”
Ms. Rosen later apologized to Ms. Romney, who stayed at home to raise the couple’s five sons. The incident sparked a political firestorm, with even President Barack Obama and his wife weighing in. Ms. Romney reportedly called the event an early birthday present for the boost it gave her husband’s campaign.
Parenting is a tough job and the notion that it is not “work” stems from the absence of compensation more than anything else. Although it’s highly unlikely we’ll see a pay-for-mothering model, a yearly survey released by Salary.com suggests that stay-at-home moms should earn more than a $100,000 a year for their labour, including overtime.
Although the mommy war debate may be less explosive in Canada, I have witnessed many similar eruptions in social settings and it’s high time for this discussion to evolve, given that many of us – women and men alike – take on this domestic role at some point in our lives.
Choosing to be a stay-at-home parent does not equate with an inability to succeed at work. In making the transition from domestic to professional work, parents must come forward and talk about the skills gleaned at home and how they apply to the workplace. Only then will the role of parenting and “time off” to raise kids be viewed as a benefit rather than a black mark on your résumé.
Employers look favourably on the non-traditional skills veterans and athletes might bring to the table, so why not the talents of stay-at-home mothers? Why do they get the short shrift?
The skills parents acquire raising their children offer them an advantage in the corporate world, said Sumru Erkut, associate director and senior research scientist at the Massachusetts-based Wellesley Centers for Women.
“Parents develop ways of responding to changing demands of children who are not necessarily rational negotiators,” Dr. Erkut noted. She lists persuasion, patience, strategic thinking, and the ability to prioritize as some of the skills successful parents learn on the job.
With the caveat that not all parents develop these skills, and that you don’t have to be a parent to acquire them, Dr. Erkut suggests that parents who take their roles seriously are more likely to develop them than non-parents.
Not all working mothers dismiss the skills they learned on their domestic shift, illustrating that the mindset about how parenting applies to the professional world might be changing.
Alexandra Bellamy, a partner at KPMG’s technology, media and telecommunications practice, often tells co-workers that raising her three children made her a better employee by improving how she managed complex issues and tight deadlines.
“One of the most important skills that having children has taught me is how to keep work stress in perspective,” Ms. Bellamy said. She recounted how her eldest son was very ill as an infant. Unable to eat or drink, he lost a significant amount of weight and all she could do was comfort him. The experience put her professional life into a perspective that allows her to not become overwhelmed by work-related stress.
“I subsequently learned that as a professional, at work I have the skills to deal with stressful situations as they arise and I have the ability to stay in control and manage through them if I keep a cool head and calm demeanour,” Ms. Bellamy said.
Amy Laski, president of Felicity, a communications agency in Toronto, cites teamwork and efficiency among the skills she honed as a parent that apply to her work environment. Most notably, she learned to quickly adapt to change when her first daughter arrived eight weeks early.
“This experience marked the start of a transformation for me into someone who can confidently say that sometimes the greatest results are achieved when you relinquish some control and don’t plan every last detail,” said Ms. Laski, adding that she finds this to be a big advantage in the business world.
It’s not only the corporate world that finds these skills useful. A sense of diplomacy plays an important role in childrearing, and translates well into politics.
Toronto City Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon ran an English-as-a-second-language department at a school before staying home to raise her two kids full-time for eight years. She said the experience taught her, among other things, to strategize, solve problems and manage conflict.
Although Ms. McMahon acknowledged being one those women who swore she would never stay home with children, she’s glad she did and believes the experience made her a good city councillor.
“After years of refereeing my kids and their friends and other kids in the sandbox or playground, I honed my bridge-building techniques – definitely essential for council,” she quipped.
Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org