Mom takes a break

Penny Sheppard, right, and her daughter, Emma, 12, bake a white spice pound cake in the kitchen of their Tega Cay home.
Penny Sheppard, right, and her daughter, Emma, 12, bake a white spice pound cake in the kitchen of their Tega Cay home.

When Erika Bell was working full-time, she remembers getting phone calls from a family member about the strides made by her infant daughter, Grace Caroline.

She'll never forget one call from her sister six years ago about the sighting of her daughter's first tooth.

"She would call me every time she saw something happening," said Bell, who was working as marketing director for the Upper Palmetto YMCA. "It was just a little tooth peeking out, but I wanted to be the first one to see it. I sat there and almost cried."

What Bell wanted didn't seem to be within her reach: A flexible schedule that would allow her to continue working on a part-time basis, but also to be at home with her child.

In 2003, she made it happen when she began working part-time.

Bell is not alone in choosing to work fewer hours while raising her children. Sixty percent of working mothers in a recent Pew Research Center study said that working part-time outside the home would be ideal. That's up from 48 percent in 1997.

Only 21 percent of working moms said that a full-time job would be ideal, down from 32 percent in 1997. Nineteen percent in the survey preferred not working at all.

When Bell stopped working full time, her daughter Grace Caroline was 3 years old and Bell had another child, Jacob. At the time, Bell wondered if working part time was the right fit.

"I questioned whether I made the right decision," Bell admits. "I loved my job. But I was torn in two -- job and family. I told myself I would give it a year and stay at home."

At first Bell was a little worried about losing the family's health insurance and whether she would be able to find adequate, inexpensive coverage. There was the fear of not being able to pay bills and of not having money for extracurricular activities.

But Bell did not have to compromise on health insurance or monthly expenses when she began working two part-time jobs that allow her to work a total of 25 hours per week.

Although most working moms in the survey said they would prefer to work part time, labor statistics cited in the study say that only 24 percent of mothers actually do.

The Pew study was based on telephone interviews conducted nationally with 2,020 adults. The margin of error was 3 percentage points for the group as a whole and 8 percentage points for working mothers.

The changing attitudes among women reflect changes and pressures in the workplace -- such as company cuts, outsourcing, job insecurity and the need for more flexibility by working women, said experts in the field and mothers themselves.

"I think this is a reaction, not against the 40-hour week, but the 50- or 60-hour week and the insanity of the work schedule and inflexibility of employers," said Ellen Bravo, a longtime activist for working women who teaches women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"What women are saying is that they want more breathing room," explained Bravo, who recently testified at a congressional hearing on making the workplace more family-friendly.

And some corporations are recognizing the need by providing their employees with options, said Cara Peters, assistant professor of marketing at Winthrop University.

"Corporations are incorporating flex-time and some are even splitting a full-time job into two part-time jobs," said Peters, who described the move for women from full-time to part-time as "a significant movement occurring in our generation."

She said that women who choose to work part time are "still really valuable employees" by their employers and have the ability to work at home from their computers or their Blackberrys.

Nell Walker, director of external relations for the College of Business at Winthrop, said that trends show there are fewer people able to do many needed jobs. Walker said that with a shortage of qualified workers, some companies are being forced to work with employees who want part-time schedules.

Peters said the current climate is a change from the 1980s, when many women were trying to get their master's degrees in business and become top-level executives.

While today's women still want to work in corporate America, they also want to have the flexibility to pick up their child from school, she said. Peters added that in addition to juggling a career, most women are still carrying the load as their family's primary caretaker.

"It's sort of a backlash to be that CEO, and a lot of women are trying to work out that balance," said Peters, who is the mother of two children, ages 5 and 1.

Attitudes about working full-time appear to be different among men, the survey found. It reported that 72 percent of fathers said their ideal situation is a full-time job.

But Bravo believes men respond that way because they feel they have no other work options. "Men who don't work full time aren't taken seriously," she said.

The survey did not ask why women would rather work part time. But Bell knows her reasons: "I was missing milestones with my children."

Those milestones included her daughter's first steps and just being there to watch her children grow.

Bell, now 33, had been working full-time since 1996 when she picked up two part-time jobs that average a total of 25 hours a week.

She works 15 hours a week as an accounting/office manager at Whisonant Electrical Services in Rock Hill, owned by her brother and father. She works 10 hours a week from home for the Upper Palmetto YMCA's Silver Fox Club, a travel club for active adults 50 and older, writing a newsletter and attending a monthly meeting.

Her schedule keeps her on the run.

"It can be challenging," said Bell, referring to the task of balancing work and family. If needed, she gets help from her mother, sister and her mother-in-law, who are all nearby.

Working part time is what Tega Cay resident Penny Sheppard has wanted to do since her daughter, Emma, now 12, was in kindergarten seven years ago.

She was able to find that balance between career and family after asking her former employer in New York if she could reduce her work hours to part-time.

She now works 30 hours per week -- from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday -- as a housing counselor for Habitat for Humanity of York County in Rock Hill. She wanted to be home with her daughter after school.

"I think the older she gets, the more powerful of an influence her friends are," Sheppard said. "I wanted to be able to be there for whatever her activities are. I wanted to have more control over her environment. It's harder for kids growing up these days."

Sheppard said the family receives health insurance through her husband's insurance provider. Another advantage in her part-time work schedule is that she can run errands during the week so she can enjoy her weekends.

It's a flexible schedule that Sheppard and Bell have grown to love and they don't have any plans of changing soon.