Blending motherhood and working: Moms work by choice — and also out of necessity

Published: Sunday, June 26 2011 1:16 a.m. MDT

He avoids eye contact and frequently furrows his brow as he hunches over one of his many blank assignments, writing slowly. He is in sixth grade, but often acts more like a kindergartener, with the occasional temper tantrum and a hypersensitivity to noises, tastes and textures.

His Asperger's syndrome also makes it difficult for him to concentrate in school, and he is significantly bothered by handwriting. He finishes a few lines, stares out the window for a minute, and then asks for help. If he asks appropriately, Abbott will take dictation from him.

"The toucans tell each other apart by the color of their bills," he tells Abbott while nibbling on a cheese stick.

"Toucans eat lots and lots of berries and occasionally eggs," he says for the next answer.

"How do you spell occasionally?" Abbott asks patiently, willing to help, but refusing to coddle her son.

"You know," he chides her, a half-smile slipping across his face.

"I know, but if you're using big words, I want you to spell it," she tells him.

Today is a good homework day, and together they fly through the assignments with no outbursts or meltdowns. Other days, it's a battle of wills that leaves Abbott even more drained.

"There are lots of adults with Asperger's who have families, and succeed," she says after David leaves for a 10-minute break. "And there are some who struggle. Right now, I just hope he can graduate from high school."

Education is a big deal for Abbott, who knows the difference it makes in someone's life.

She has already emphasized college with Morgan, wanting more for her daughter than she has.

"While Macey's is a great place to work," Abbott says with a sad smile, "it's not the best career for a mom with three kids."

MOVING TOWARD UNDERSTANDING

Several years ago, Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a non-profit research center that studies the changes in workplace, family and community organized a study where they asked 1,023 children from 8- to 18-years-old what they would change about how their parents' work affected their lives.

Thirty-four percent of kids wished that their mothers could be less stressed and tired when they came home, and 27.5 percent wished the same for their dads. Yet only 2 percent of parents guessed that their children would make that wish, instead guessing that their children would wish for more time with the parent.

"We're really focused on should she or shouldn't she (work)," Galinksy said. "(But we're) not focused on what (she's) like when (she) walks in that door from work."

"Overall, the research reveals that what matters most is how children are parented," she continued. "It's who the mother is as a person, not that she works, that tends to have more of an impact on children."

Knowing that, it's in the best interest of businesses to show their employees that they respect the sacrifices of working mothers, through things like paid maternity leave, on-site child care, flexible work weeks, telecommuting and equal advancement opportunities for women.

It's a lesson every business must learn, because "women's participation in all segments of our society is a given," said Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a feminist activist, author and co-founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women. "It's not going to change. Women are not going back to just the home. We're going to play a role in our society and people have to come to terms with that, accept it and move on."

Sitting on the couch in her mother's living room, Abbott talks about how she is moving on.

Slowly, she says. One day at a time.

In a rare, long-term glimpse ahead, the 36-year-old sees herself in school, pursuing a career that will provide more for her children. Maybe culinary arts, she muses, but quickly tosses the idea aside, saying she would never make any money.

It's hard to start over, but the motivating dream is to someday own her own home, complete with flowers in the front and a garden out back.

Until then, she'll keep ringing up groceries, filling the slow cooker and helping with homework in a blend of motherhood and making ends meet.

"I don't know if I'll ever say that 'I love going to work,'" Abbott said. "But I'm already becoming more accepting of the fact that I'm going to have to suck it up and do it. I miss the time with the kids, but it helps that they're older. I don't have little ones at home so I'm not missing out on those first words or first steps that I (missed) when I was first married and working. But it's still hard."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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