OBJECTFALL RIVER, Wis. — Sara Uttech has not spent much of her career so far worrying about “leaning in.” Instead, she has mostly been hanging on, trying to find ways to get her career to accommodate her family life, rather than the other way around.
Ms. Uttech, like many working mothers, is a married college graduate, and her job running member communications for an agricultural association helps put her family near the middle of the nation’s income curve. And like dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, she finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling, or even the opportunity to work fewer hours. The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.
“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers — and fathers — nationwide. This attendance record is even more impressive when you realize that her children play in upward of six a week.
Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that, she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.
Ms. Uttech has done some of those things, and plans to do more as her children — two sons, ages 8 and 10, and a 15-year-old stepdaughter — grow older. Already she has been raising her hand to travel more to trade shows and conferences.
But probably the career move she is proudest of — and the one she advocates the most — is asking her boss to let her work from home on Fridays.
“People have said to me, ‘It’s not fair that you get to work from home. I want to work from home,’” she said. “And I say, ‘Well, have you asked?’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, I could never do that. My boss would never go for it.’ ”
Not everyone aspires to be an executive at Facebook, like Ms. Sandberg, or to set foreign policy, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official and another prominent commentator on what’s holding women back in the workplace, especially when the children are young.
Unaccounted for in the latest books offering leadership strategies by and for elite women is the fact that only 37 percent of working women — and 44 percent of working men — say they want a job with more responsibilities, according to a survey from the Families and Work Institute. And among all mothers with children under 18, just a quarter say they would choose full-time work if money were no object, and they were free to do whatever they wanted, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.
Ms. Uttech, a 42-year-old with a communications degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has worked for the Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies for about 11 years. She has also become an increasingly important breadwinner to her family, particularly in the years since the housing bust battered her husband’s construction business. She doesn’t have access to nannies, in-office nurseries, personal assistants, or drivers, so she has had to be resourceful to support her family while still doing everything that is important to her as a parent.
Step 1 was to help persuade her children’s school to start an affordable after-school program, which allowed her to continue working full time rather than dart out for pickup by 3:15 or pay to have them bused to a day-care center across town.
Step 2 has been to just be really, really productive in her hours both inside and outside the office.
On a recent Tuesday, which she said was broadly representative of most workdays, she rose at 5:45 a.m. and did a load of laundry before everyone else awoke. Soon she was wielding the hair dryer in one hand and a son’s permission slip in the other; running to the kitchen to pack lunches and help one of her sons make a snack as part of a book report presentation; and then driving the children to school at 7:15 a.m. before commencing her 40-minute commute to the office, where she arrives a little after 8. She heads back out — often directly to the baseball diamond — at 4:30 p.m.
On Sundays, she teaches at her church, and then prepares most of the meals for the rest of the week, making great use of two wonders of modern cookery: the slow cooker and the freezer.
She says, repeatedly, that she doesn’t “have it all together.” She worries about her ability to pay for three children’s college educations, not to mention the private high school she would like to send the boys to first, not to mention her retirement someday.
And she emphasizes that she gets a lot of help: from her husband, Michael, and from other family members, such as her mother and her brother, who live nearby and help watch the children.
“I really don’t want people to come away from my story thinking that I’ve figured it out, or that I have the answers for anyone else,” she said. “I have been very blessed in so many ways.”
She acknowledges, though, that she did go out on a limb, careerwise, to ask about working from home some days.
Courage to ask
Ms. Uttech approached her boss several years ago about working from home on a trial basis: just on Fridays, and just for a summer, when the office was on shorter Friday hours. She was still actively engaged in office work, including emails and conference calls — but could throw a load of laundry in the washer on a quick break and didn’t have to endure the long commute or get dressed up for work.
After a few summers, she got the courage to ask about staying home on Fridays year-round. Her boss said yes because she had proved her ability and dedication.
She says the greatest “pearl of wisdom” she can offer other working mothers and fathers is to not be afraid to ask for such accommodations, even if the response might be no.
Certainly, Ms. Uttech was lucky to work under managers who were receptive to a flexible schedule request. In the years since Ms. Uttech first approached her bosses about the arrangement, the organization has developed a formal work-from-home policy, and now a couple of employees work remotely full time.
However, only about a third of employers allow at least some of their employees to work from home on a regular basis; just 2 percent allow all or most of their employees this option, according to the 2012 National Study of Employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute.
Part of the problem may be that most women and men don’t feel as if they have enough leverage to ask for accommodations, said Anne Ladky, the executive director of Women Employed, an advocacy group for low-income women in Chicago.
“The reality is that a lot of women don’t have any bargaining power,” Ms. Ladky said. “What do you do when your employer is not a flexible, sympathetic employer about your family situation, and you’re seen as pretty replaceable?”
Ms. Uttech says she hopes that someday employers will view motherhood as an asset.
“Because I’m a mom I know how to multitask, and I have all these other skills I didn’t have before like juggling, mentoring, educating, problem-solving, managing,” she said. “... Motherhood should be a feather in my cap, not a drawback.”