This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of Northern Colorado Business Report
When Tamara Cramer found herself changing yet another milk-stained silk blouse at work, she knew something had to give.
Cramer was a public relations and events marketing manager at Group Publishing in Loveland, and she loved her job. She went in early and left late, believed in the company and knew she was well-positioned for a promotion. But it wasn't working.
Her first child, Owen – who at the time was 2 – was struggling at home. He had cystic fibrosis, and between his meal and medication schedule, required a full-time caretaker. Cramer couldn't help but feel that he needed more time with Mom.
With the birth of her daughter, Eden, matters quickly spiraled. Whether it was catching up on email during family dinner or pumping milk at the office, Cramer constantly had to be two places at once – and couldn't help feeling as if she was never fully at either.
So she quit, deciding that trying any longer to strike the right work-life balance just wasn't going to work.
Cramer says leaving her job for her family was "one of the hardest decisions" she's ever had to make.
It is a decision that, it appears, many women who are mothers and top professionals across Northern Colorado and the nation grapple with every day. And as more women enter the workforce, more are expected to face this very dilemma.
The notion of balancing work and life — of having it all — has been part of the feminist credo and the wider culture for a few decades now.
But this June, Ann-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, produced one of Atlantic magazine's most-read and talked-about pieces in years, an essay titled, "Why women still can't have it all."
The article — which earned its own Twitter hashtag, thousands of comments, talk-show commentaries and even a book deal — detailed Slaughter's personal tensions between work and family life and her ultimate decision to leave a powerful, high-level government position to spend more time with her two teenage boys.
Her conclusion: that without reforms in the American workplace, without huge structural changes, mothers will never be able to compete on an equal playing field with their childless counterparts.
Perhaps more controversially, Slaughter's piece asserted that women who believe they can have it all are just fooling themselves, at least in the current environment.
Pushing a button
Slaughter's case could be considered more extreme than most. Her job required that she be away from home during the workweek. Every week.
Still, many women professionals in Northern Colorado experience this tension in their lives every day. With unprecedented numbers of women pursuing higher education and joining the working world – making up 63.5 percent of the labor force in Colorado, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the hectic, often frustrating work-life juggling act is one that many know too well.
"It's a riddle," said Judy Dorsey, president and principal engineer of Fort Collins-based engineering consulting firm Brendle Group and mother of two. "You have to (have) the firm belief that there is a solution to the riddle of being a great mom and a great engineer, even when the rest of the world is telling you that one of these things must give."
There are plenty of reasons to explain why this "riddle" persists, including ones that have nothing to do with employment and workplace policies.
In part, while women are increasingly bringing home the bacon, they're still the ones carrying the brunt of the housework.
According to a 2008 study by the Institute of Families and Work, women's role on the home front hasn't changed all that much since the 1970s. Mothers spent the same number of weekday hours with their children (close to four) in 2008 as they did in 1977, and married women today report still doing the majority of the cooking and cleaning in their households. All while earning almost half of the total household income.
Also, although the wage gap between genders has consistently narrowed over the past five decades, the average woman still makes substantially less than the average man, according to National Partnership for Women and Families statistics. In Colorado's district four (encompassing Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Longmont), women made 24 percent less than men did for the same job, effectively costing women $11,000 in wages a year.
Some of that disparity lies in the career choices women make.
Women in general tend to look for different things from their careers than men, including greater flexibility and more work-life satisfaction, and they are often willing to sacrifice financial gain for these perks, according to the Families and Work Institute.
Indeed, in 2011, women made up only 13.6 percent of architects and engineers, 4.3 percent of airline pilots and flight engineers and 33.8 percent of physicians and surgeons. Those are all traditionally higher-paying career fields. In contrast, more than four out of five librarians, registered nurses and elementary- and middle-school teachers were female, working in realms that tend to pay less.
Still, women today are doing more, making less and still stuck with just 24 hours in a day. No wonder Slaughter's piece pushed a button.
Forcing their hand
Trying to find that work-life balance, women across the region have structured their lives in various ways in hopes of achieving success as both mothers and businesspeople.
Some have had more luck than others.
When Cramer made the decision to quit her job and stay home with her children, she understood her choice would mean financial sacrifice. Her biggest regret is that she and her husband, Matt Cramer, didn't transition to living solely off his income before the birth of their second child. Having more savings in the bank would have eased the transition to one breadwinner, Tamara Cramer said. Still, they've made things work.
Since her departure from the everyday working world, Tamara Cramer has taken on part-time work from home, and helped her husband run the custom-order bakery and guitar lesson and repair practice they own.
She is also a certified labor coach and the manager of Loveland's winter farmers market. As her children have gotten older (Owen is now 7 and Eden is 5), she's even been able to take on some PR work, which she does around her children's schedule.
None of her current workload is as time-consuming as her former job at Group Publishing — but, of course, her career isn't what it used to be, either.
'Teetering' vs. balancing
Dr. Emily Graves, a Fort Collins-based equine veterinarian for Pfizer Animal Health, has managed to stay on her career path but only after making some big changes and accepting a measure of sacrifice.
She also happens to work from home the majority of the time.
In 2010, when Graves found out she was pregnant, the then 38-year-old knew she didn't want to give up her job, or let her investment in vet school go to waste. Childcare became a necessity.
Her husband takes their 2-year-old son Mike to daycare every morning while Graves starts her workday. Mike gets picked up by a nanny, who watches him for the remaining hours until both Graves are off the clock. Although complicated, the childcare schedule allows both Emily and her husband to continue relatively uninterrupted in their own careers – what she believes to be a crucial part of her own personal fulfillment.
"I certainly missed some parenting moments along the way," she said, including Mike's first steps and visit with Santa. But she considers the sacrifice worthwhile, at least so far.
It helped that Graves' employer granted her three months of paid maternity leave when Mike was born, allowing her to focus on her son in the critical early months without worrying about work.
Others aren't so fortunate.
In Colorado, there are no laws requiring companies to grant women flex-time or paid maternity leave, and most employers choose not to offer such benefits. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employers must offer up to 12 weeks of leave surrounding the birth of a baby. But that time off is unpaid.
In the current economic climate, many women simply can't afford that option.
And no matter what the career choice, women are, of course, still the ones bearing children.
While teaching as an adjunct history professor at CSU, Dr. Ginger Smoak, mother of two, received no paid maternity leave from the school, teaching right up until her due date and returning to the classroom one week later. She described the juggle of work and family not so much as balance but as a "teetering."
"In general, I think that balancing work and family is more difficult for women than men because while a woman's partner may be willing and able to take on the role of primary caregiver for children, ultimately women have biological restraints, such as difficult pregnancies or hospitalization before or after birth, nursing, etc.," said Smoak.
"I can see why women can feel forced to give up on a career once they have children, or at least feel that it is too difficult to try to make it work," she said.
Many women, of course, choose to plow ahead, regardless.
"Women shouldn't feel like they have to sacrifice anything," said Jessica Peterson, owner of the Customer Wow Project, a marketing and customer relations firm based in Loveland, and mother of one. "I'm teaching my daughter that she can be whatever she wants by living the example."
Peterson splits childcare responsibilities with her husband, Evan Peterson. She often works from home, structuring her business hours around her daughter's school schedule. If work's not finished when 7-year-old Cadence gets home, then Jessica Peterson returns to it after bedtime, sometimes at her desk until 1 a.m.
But not everyone has the flexibility that comes with being self-employed or has a partner willing to share responsibility.
After stepping down from her position with the Department of State, Slaughter was fortunate enough to have options – she's now a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. As she noted in her piece, many more women struggle to get back into the working world after taking time off.
Smoak draws on history in conjuring up possible solutions to the issue. She said medieval women would have taken their children to the market to work with them, because there was no other option. This is one area, she said, where contemporary society would do well to follow.
"In the high Middle Ages, most women would not have recognized different 'work' and 'family' spheres, instead spending their time immersed in both," she said. "Those women, too, would have recognized the concept (of having it all) as faulty, as a fiction that simply didn't exist for them. Having children close by was a reality, and would be one aspect that would make attending to both work and family needs much easier for women today."
Smoak, like many others, mentions on-site childcare, matching school and work schedules for vacations, flex-time, extended leave policies and benefits as ways employers could engender a better, more integrated experience for working parents.
"Perhaps we should become more 'medieval' in this way," she said.
Many workplaces have, in fact, incorporated some of these programs over the years. But many more have yet to even consider them.
Last year, Smoak's husband was hired as a professor at the University of Utah. She said she allowed his job to take precedence in determining their residence because she felt her job at CSU didn't offer adequate flexibility or job security. Since the relocation, she has accepted a position as an assistant professor/lecturer at the University of Utah.
Employers may have no choice but to eventually adapt.
Statistics portend more women entering the workforce and rising to the highest levels of their organizations. Greater numbers of women than men have earned master's degrees since 1981, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Currently, 52 percent of CSU is female – up from 30 percent in 1960.
Despite these trends, Megan Shellman, president-elect of Colorado Business Women, thinks real change in the workplace will happen only if it's mandated by law. "I do not believe that corporations or small businesses will support an increase in costs (associated with hiring women with families) for any reason without legislation," she said.
Slaughter goes further: "The best hope for improving the lot of all women … is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders," she wrote. "Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone."