Women At Work

Business Casual
Susan Percy

We lived in Atlanta’s Inman Park during the height of the “Presidential Parkway” protests in the early 1980s. On a morning when many of our neighbors were chaining themselves to trees to stop the oncoming bulldozers, I took a call from a little girl up the street who inquired politely whether I could drive carpool for her mother, who had just been arrested. No problem. I grabbed my daughter, my purse and my briefcase, and I was on my way.

I was pleased, of course, that I could help out a neighbor; but mainly I was comforted in the knowledge that I was making a hefty deposit to the unofficial working moms’ favor bank. That meant I was entitled to a sizable withdrawal at some time of my choosing, a time when a work project or pediatrician’s appointment or flat tire upset my fragile little apple cart. Backup plans are great, but there’s no substitute for a list of people who owe you a favor.

Having it all became something of a watchword among women in the ’70s. The notion that one could almost effortlessly be both SuperMom and SuperProfessional was heady and, ultimately, short-lived. But it was great while it lasted. Of course you could have everything every minute of every day. Why not? All it would take was for that heel-dragging cadre of middle-aged white guys to hand over the key to the boardroom — along with the decoder ring that provided the formula for finding reliable babysitters, reasonable work deadlines and children who never clutched your leg and sobbed, “Don’t go.”

By the time the ’80s came rolling in, and I actually had a child and a job at the same time, I found it helpful to modify my having-it-all motto to the one that has stayed with me, the having-some-of-it-some-of-the-time-if-you’re-lucky one. (I’ve added a corollary: You’ll need all the help you can get — from spouse, family, teachers, friends, co-workers and neighbors.)

There were always stories circulating on the mom grapevine about high-powered and highly paid women who hired night-nannies and day-nannies and kept backup-nannies on retainer, to cover every possibility. They also baked whole-grain bread every weekend and had great-looking hair, or so legend had it. If these women actually existed, they lived on some strange planet far removed from the places where my friends and I lived.

Most of us considered ourselves ahead of the game if we remembered to sponge the baby drool from the shoulders of our blouses before we left for the office.

A recent conversation with a young mother about to resume her working life left me scrounging for some sage advice I could offer to her or, indeed, to any young woman struggling to find the right balance between work and family.

Based on no particular store of wisdom, just years of experience and lots of conversations with other women, what I came up with is this: Figure out what you want and need to do, what your own situation requires, then figure out how to do it and who can help you.

And keep everything in perspective. Nothing is static. The best job in the world can become the worst one pretty easily; companies get sold, workloads increase or decrease. What you do is important, but who you work for doesn’t determine who you are.

The best child care situation can change drastically — babysitters quit, day-care centers change ownership or kids outgrow a particular arrangement.

The fact is that most women’s lives and their work, family and even financial situations will shift and change over the course of 16 or 18 or 20 years; there will be choices and options and opportunities.

Among the group of women I count as friends and acquaintances, there was one who left a lucrative law practice to spend time with her children. Another who never wanted to be anything other than a stay-at-home mom settled fairly quickly into a full-time job when family circumstances demanded it. Some started their own businesses; some did freelance work. Some worked part-time; some worked overtime. Most everyone adjusted, re-adjusted, scaled down or ratcheted up their working lives in some fashion as family and finances required.

Nobody baked bread every weekend or had hair that looked great all the time, but everybody counted on that favor bank.

Categories: Business Casual