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Time-starved: Is the recession creating a Third Way?

When I wrote not long ago about a sociologist who challenged me to find the 30 hours of leisure he said I had every week, I began to think of the forces that operate on working mothers without us really being fully aware of them. It's a topic I explored earlier this week on the Dr. Phil show.

I didn't feel like I had or enjoyed full, soul-refreshing moments of leisure. I had a great life, to be sure, but it felt crazy, my time chopped up and often distracted. My activities typically revolved around work and kids.

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Some of that was internal - I felt I had to "earn" leisure by churning through this never-ending To Do list. And because I never got to the end of the chores, I never made the time for leisure. (I remember one evening after work, thinking how I'd play with the kids outside just as soon as I'd finished weeding. The sun was down, the kids gone and the weeding far from over by the time I finally came into the house, feeling angry and disgusted with myself.)

But some of it is external, as well. Most of the advice that began to pour in about how to find better work-life balance was like more of the same from women's magazines - quick fixes and just one more thing for me to do. Something was wrong with me, with working mothers. ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!" one reader admonished me, which made me feel even worse.)

How about looking at the way we structure work, which hasn't changed since the 1930s? Or our schools, which run on the fiction that working families have 10 weeks of vacation every summer and that someone will be there at 3 pm to meet the bus? Or our workplace culture, which often leans to the workaholic or macho? (I've been incredibly blessed by understanding and flexible editors at The Washington Post who care more about what I do than where or when I do it. But still, I remember trying to hide the fact that I worked a four-day workweek after my daughter was born.)

Rachel Connelly, a labor economist at Bowdoin I interviewed for my magazine story, said true working family balance may not come for a few more generations. Despite the fact that 80 percent of school-age children have mothers who work for pay outside the home, working mothers are still a relatively new phenomenon against the backdrop of eons of hearth tending.

"It would be great if you could have career-type jobs where you only work 30 hours a week. Are we getting there anytime soon? No, we're not," she said.

Jennifer Folsom, who runs a new kind of recruiting firm, Mom-entum Resources, which places working mothers in high level yet flexible jobs, begs to differ.

After an online chat, she sent me this:

I think you missed an opportunity to highlight one major point on flexible work schedules with your comment that "Part time work, which many studies show is preferable to a parent, for at least some time while their children are young, is either unavailable for the kind of work they do (a friend of mine quit when, after the birth of her fourth child, she asked to go part time, and she was refused) or unaffordable."

Whereas I left investment banking because that's not a lifestyle I could manage with newborn twins and was later denied the ability to go part-time in my management consulting job, we have been in business 3 years, with nearly 100% year over year growth each year and are making part-time and flexible full-time work every single day. In fact, we got busy right before Christmas and haven't slowed down.

...A down market that is one person's nightmare is another person's part-time dream. We're leveraging employers' tight purse strings to put highly qualified employees (mostly working moms but also Dads and even some baby boomers) in jobs with schedules that fit their demands.

Of course I'm not always great at living the balance I preach (note the time stamp, I've been up since 5, but I'll eat a big breakfast with the family and put all my kids on the bus/daycare today) but we're seeing more and more women making their work work for them, and that's very, very exciting.

I visited Jennifer one morning at her new office in Belle Haven, Va., just off the GW Parkway. The firm got started two and a half years ago when two women in Richmond got frustrated at being on the Mommy Track at Capitol One with dead end careers and no flex time. The desire for highly educated women to have flexible or part-time work has been out there for a while, Folsom said. But it's only recently that corporate and government America have been getting wise to the concept that these workers are good for the bottom line. "They're figuring out it's a much cheaper way to get top talent," Folsom said. "And people are willing to trade income, benefits and job security for flexibility."

As the recession deepened, she said their business took off. She recently opened a Northern Virginia office. "We've been crazy busy, with a TON of part-time hiring and a TON of telecommuting" she said. "Our sweet spot is the 24-32 hour week. Where it's perfectly normal to say at hiring, 'I need Fridays off.'" They're helping people who've been laid off, or who've taken time out to raise children get flexible contract work, or begin their own businesses as consultants.

So far, they haven't spent a dime on marketing. "It's all word-of-mouth." Then Folsom excused herself. It was time to pick her kids up from preschool.

What about you? Do you have stories to share about the recession creating a more flexible, family friendly "third way?" Drop me a line and share your story and I'll write about what I'm finding.

By Brigid Schulte  | April 2, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Build-A-Story  
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