Forget the Glass Ceiling: Is There a "Parent Ceiling" for Working Moms?

For many moms when the big job meets little kids, something's gotta give

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is the role model du jour for today's working moms, with her admission that she leaves work at 5:30pm and her encouraging plan to help women "lean in" and stop selling their career short. But what if -- like pretty much all of us -- you don't have a Sheryl Sandberg in your own work life to pave the way and model exactly how to have it all?

Women in 2013 know they can have a job and a family. Look around: There are plenty of moms making it work and lots of women in positions of power. But look again: Aside from the high-profile exceptions to the rule like Marissa Mayer (with her two-week maternity leave and nursery next to her office) and Sandberg, where are the moms with little kids in the Big Jobs? What happens when the pinnacle-of-your-career opportunity collides with the little kid years?

Many moms hit the "parent ceiling." 

Working moms that we spoke to say that when they look at the career landscape above them in the highest positions, they do not see many women with young kids. "At my agency, they have been very supportive of me as a mom, through my pregnancies and now letting me work from home a few days per week," says Cindy, a PR executive. "But I can't help but realize that there are very few women above me with children who still work full-time. In fact, one of my closest mentors just had her first child and stopped work altogether."

Many of those who do make it work have a stay-at-home spouse keeping everything running smoothly -- a perk historically enjoyed by many top male executives. "It seems like more and more women in upper management roles have stay-at-home husbands," says Jennifer, a mid-level manager at a Fortune 100 company. "When you get to a certain level in your position, in order to be as effective as you can, someone else really needs to be managing the home fires. Someone who has a full-time stay-at-home spouse provides more focus to work. It is really hard to deliver that much focus when kids' schedules and appointments and activities also have to be incorporated."

Other women at the top have paid and/or family childcare help that's beyond the normal hours. "I have a network of people who love my children -- one paid, many unpaid -- who make it possible for me to go to work, focus on my job and do the very best I can for my clients," adds Cindy, the PR exec. "Without them, I'd probably have to quit."

Sure, you can outsource tucking the kids into bed, but do you want to? Says Katie, a doctor who purposely chose a low-key practice: "I see women my age and older who have taken much more high-powered jobs at other institutions and have children. The way they do it is they have a ton of hired help who plays a huge role in their children's lives. Is that 'having it all?'"

Carol, a lawyer who is married to a doctor, hasn't been able to figure out a balance. "If both people have high-powered jobs, they're not going to get to the next level if they also want to be with their young kids. I just don't see how it's possible. Many of my peers are men who have a stay-at-home wife who handles everything. I need a wife. I'm sitting in a meeting with men and I'm getting texts from the nanny about playdates and trying to sign the kids up for camp. The men sitting next to me are not doing that."

When the choices boil down to a trio of near-impossible options -- stay-at-home husband (not an option for many), extremely helpful extended family (often a geographical impossibility) or an overtime nanny who becomes like a third parent (a dealbreaker for many moms), is there really much of a choice at all? No wonder so many women lean out and put their ambitions on hold for when their kids are older. As Lisa Belkin puts it, working moms aren't choosing to leave -- they're being pushed out.

Raising babies and little kids requires time at home. Babies should be breastfed, ideally for a year. Reading to your child at bedtime fosters language development. And eating dinner together as a family may or may not reduce the risk of your child one day using drugs. On the other hand, moving ahead at work almost always means putting in more hours and taking on more responsibility. It's a simple math equation that doesn't add up -- there aren't enough hours in the day to do both.

"Although we have made a lot of strides in the workplace with flexible scheduling, that doesn't come into play when an organization is identifying its leaders," says Jennifer. It seems moms will continue to hit the parent ceiling until we rethink the notion of leadership and what we may be losing by not allowing more moms to advance.

Read more:

Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Plan Has a Mom Problem
Wish We'd Known: 23 Things No One Told Us About Work After Having a Baby
Work After Baby: Inspiring Moms -- From Actors to Athletes -- Share Their Stories

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