Does Everyone Want to Be on the ‘Mommy Track’?

When I caught up recently with Liz Koelsch, one of the moms that my friend Jessica Bennett profiled for our 2021 “primal scream” project — a look at motherhood during the pandemic’s peak — a lot had changed in her life. In the four years since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency, Koelsch, who was a single mom when we first met her, got married to a great guy. She completed an associate degree in paralegal studies. And she’s finally happy at work because she has moved to a job that is mostly remote and her boss is “all about time flexibility.”

“I switched jobs so many times during Covid. I think I had five jobs because they just weren’t working for what was going on in my personal life,” Koelsch told me. Now, she works four days from home, one day in the office, and her life is manageable. “I can throw a load of laundry” in and “on my 15 minute break I can start soup and it’s ready by dinnertime. It’s this whole great way of living. I don’t want to give it up.” She and her new husband are trying for a child together. Remote work, and Washington State’s paid family and medical leave program, will make having another kid possible for her.

When I followed up with a bunch of parents whom The Times heard from in 2020 and 2021 to find out how they’re faring these days, two topics came up most frequently. One was the negative effect of the increased volatility and outrageous expense of child care (which I wrote about on Wednesday). The other was a new flexibility, for many, around work. Parents who have increased opportunities to work remotely, or even just managers who are more understanding about their caregiving commitments, told me that these were largely positive changes in their lives.

Reading through the responses of parents who said that more flexible work situations had improved their lives made me realize that a lot of the framing of the return-to-office discourse has missed the point. I’ve seen a fair number of headlines over the past few years like this one, “WFH Goes From New Path to Dead End for Working Mothers,” and this one, “‘You Are Mommy Tracked to the Billionth Degree,’” suggesting that for ambitious moms, working from home is a mistake.

But while it may be more challenging for some moms to advance if they choose to work from an office less frequently (though I’m optimistic that will change over time as remote work is normalized), what I’m hearing these days from many mothers — and fathers — is that climbing the ladder is not top of mind. With those mommy-track headlines, it’s also worth remembering that working remotely isn’t just a corporate mom thing. While college-educated mothers of young children are more likely to work remotely than other college-educated women, “Looking narrowly at just college graduates, remote work patterns for women and men look more evenly distributed, with men slightly more likely to work remotely than women,” according to an analysis by my newsroom colleagues Ben Casselman, Emma Goldberg and Ella Koeze.

The idea of being “mommy tracked” also sets up and cements a false binary: You’re either going straight to the top as fast as possible or you’re going to stagnate forever. More and more, parents are rejecting the notion that this is the only way to think about their work-life balance, particularly while their kids are young. They’re more concerned about having jobs that allow them to both make ends meet and still have the time and energy to enjoy their families.

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