Company policies and social norms often result in women handling the bulk of child care. Is that realistic in today’s economy?

Work-life balance is dead.

This is what Limeade, the Bellevue software company that makes an employee-engagement platform, declares in an e-book titled “Why work-life balance is dead.” The rest of the document, which offers advice for human resources professionals, is less blunt than its title. It explains why companies and employees should seek “work-life integration,” which apparently is more than just a nom de guerre for the now-cliché “work-life balance.”

That phrase gained prominence in the 1970s thanks to a British women’s-rights group, and it was adopted in the United States a decade later. Since that time, there are more women in the workplace. Americans also are working longer hours — a Pew Research Center poll suggests the average U.S. workweek is about 47 hours, and more than 11 percent of U.S. workers put in 50-hour workweeks. Companies, especially in the tech industry, are offering more and more perks: paid leave, higher pay, flexible hours, in-office gyms and kitchens, and sometimes daycare. At the same time, wages are stagnating, creating what Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the two-income trap — the requirement that both parents in middle-class U.S. households work in order to meet the rising cost of living.

Historically, work-life balance was a women’s issue. Men had no balancing act. They made up a larger share of the workforce, did less housework, and earned a vast majority — if not all — of a family’s money. But as women gained a foothold in the professional realm over the last few decades, they had to carve out time to meet their traditional household duties, while men largely continued on as usual. That trend is changing — men are doing more housework — but notions of gender-specific roles in the household and in the workplace persist. And if work-life balance actually is dead, as companies like Limeade are saying, what does that mean for mothers?

When Chelley Patterson and her husband moved to the Eastside, she planned to take one year off to raise their child. She ended up having another child and was a stay-at-home mom for eight years.

When Chelley Patterson and her husband moved to the Eastside, she planned to take one year off to raise their child. She ended up having another child and
was a stay-at-home mom for eight years. Photos by Rachel Coward

CHELLEY PATTERSON TOOK a maternity class at Overlake Hospital in 2001. When she told her classmates that she planned to take a year off work after the baby was born, she remembers one mother scoffing at that notion.

“She was like, ‘There’s no way that I could stay at home, because we need my income,’” Patterson recalled. “And then we walked out into the parking lot, and she climbed into a Mercedes.”

Patterson was 40 at the time, and previously had led a corporate, jet-setting life. She and her husband, Matt, had met while working in London. She had a solid job in Atlanta that paid well and had great benefits, but when Matt got a job with Avanade, they decided to move to the Eastside, and Patterson was going to take a year off to raise the baby. Eventually, though, Patterson’s one year off turned into eight.

“There’s probably a really good reason maternity leave is three months for most organizations,” Patterson said. “For the first three months, your attachment is still developing. … When you’re a stay-at-home mom with a new baby or on maternity leave for three months, it’s rough. You’re not sleeping. You can’t go into the shower without the baby crying. Your life is kind of a mess for a while.

“So for those first three months, I can imagine mothers being comfortable stepping away and dropping the baby off (at daycare),” Patterson continued. “But then something happens at about five months, or it did for me, where the bonding with my kid got so strong that the notion of taking him to daycare became intolerable.”

Women forgoing work to raise children has been normal for decades. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 5 million stay-at-home mothers and just 211,000 stay-at-home dads. Being a stay-at-home mom also is normal in Patterson’s adopted hometown, Snoqualmie, where seeing a woman pushing a stroller during business hours is commonplace.

Patterson and her husband were both comfortable with her not returning to work after a year off. Nevertheless, Patterson, who in her Ph.D. program studied how people identify themselves through their careers, for a spell found herself struggling to wholeheartedly embrace her new identity as solely a parent.

“I recognized this as a professional identity crisis. I was this world-traveling, highly competent professional person who would fly coast to coast and lived overseas and had suits,” Patterson said. “I got rid of my suits. They didn’t really fit; I got a little chubby when I was pregnant, my hips changed. … There was that point of purging the closet and getting rid of your professional suits. It was a little heartbreaking. I could get more suits, but who am I now? Who is this person who is having conversations about diapers and breastfeeding?”

The identity crisis Patterson underwent isn’t atypical for a stay-at-home parent, but some must undergo it without consenting to their new roles. For couples that do opt for one parent to stay home, social norms might dictate the choice. If the decision is based on finances, again it’s most likely the woman will stay at home — women in the U.S. make about 80 percent of what men do, so a father is most likely to be the primary breadwinner, thus making it harder to forgo his salary. Furthermore, the cost of childcare can factor into the decision. According to advocacy group Puget Sound Sage, King County residents typically pay between $12,000 and $17,000 per year for infant daycare. If a parent is earning low wages, it sometimes is cost-effective for that parent to stay home, whether he or she wants to or not.

For Patterson, it was money that eventually led her to return to work. She and her family weren’t cash-strapped — Matt still was earning good money as a software contractor — but they had a second child and had twice upgraded homes. To meet the financial demand, Patterson went back to work, signing on as development director with the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking.

“So we are now starting to be that lady that I met (at Overlake) with the Mercedes,” Patterson said. “We’re not quite there, but we’re like, ‘Oh, we need bigger; we need more.’”

Jessica Raymond felt working for a startup wouldn’t allow her enough time with her three children, but BitTitan’s flexibility was appealing.

Jessica Raymond felt working for a startup wouldn’t allow her enough time with her three children, but BitTitan’s flexibility was appealing.

IN RETURNING TO work, Patterson joined the large, and growing, demographic of working moms. About 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force — up from 45 percent four decades ago — which establishes the dynamic of splitting housework with their significant other.

Though the gap has improved, the housework split is still far from even. In 1976, women did about 26 hours of housework a week and men did 6, according to a University of Michigan study. Thirty-five years later, that average had dipped to about 16.5 hours per week, but men were still doing just 12 hours of housework a week.

This is the situation Nicole Bates finds herself in. The program manager at Intellectual Ventures’ Institute for Disease Modeling and her partner, David Callaghan, have a nearly 2-year-old son. The two split housework, but Bates handles “80 percent” of child rearing, according to Callaghan, who has two teenagers from a previous marriage.

Callaghan spends more time at the office than does Bates — he’s typically out of the house 11 or 12 hours a day, while Bates usually doesn’t leave the house until 10 a.m. and comes home at 3:45 p.m. The rest of her work is done at home. When both she and her husband are at home, Bates handles most of the indoor chores. “I think it’s implicitly divided up by gender sometimes,” Bates said of her and Callaghan’s responsibilities at home. “I’m probably not going to chainsaw the trees outside — that’s a dude thing.”

Research suggests that situations like Bates’ are dictated just as much by institutional culture and policies as they are by family dynamics. Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, studies gender inequality in the workplace and among families. In one of her studies, survey participants were asked to state their preference between being the primary breadwinner or principal homemaker in a marriage, or remain self-reliant. Another survey added the option of an egalitarian arrangement and specified family-friendly policies: paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, and flexible work hours.

What Thébaud’s team found backed up the findings of previous studies: In the absence of family-friendly policies, women are more likely to revert to traditional gender roles. In Thébaud’s survey, just 5.5 percent of women with knowledge of the institutional policies said they preferred to be the primary caretaker. Remove the egalitarian option, and the percentage jumps to 37.5.

“Let’s say you’re a working mom and you know your husband has paternity leave that’s paid. Then you’re going to be more likely to expect a more egalitarian relationship in which we each contribute to caregiving and earning,” Thébaud said. “If your husband doesn’t have access to paternity (leave), then you’re more likely to say, ‘I’ll be responsible for the caregiving, at least early on.’”

Indeed, when Bates was pregnant, it was her, not Callaghan, who had to decide whether to continue working. “I can’t (quit). I’ve got child support — I’m not going to put that on (Bates),” Callaghan said.

When Microsoft’s ballyhooed parental leave extensions go into effect next month, the company will offer mothers 20 weeks of paid leave and fathers eight. Some argue mothers deserve more time off to deal with the physical effects of childbirth and child rearing — fathers don’t have to worry about pumping milk during a meeting, for example. But if a mom wants to return to work shortly after childbirth and the couple wants to maximize the amount of time they can keep their child out of daycare, policies like these remove nuance in meting out childcare and housework duties — for the sake of practicality, Mom’s responsible.

MOTHER OF THREE Jessica Raymond knew it was time for a new job when her work-life balance had skewed far to the former. “I did work around the clock. I had 5 a.m. meetings, and I had 11 p.m. meetings,” the marketing executive said. “I’d try to work the kids in here and there. My boss was super supportive, but the work never stopped.”

Working such long hours is more palatable with a partner at home to watch the kids, but Raymond didn’t have that luxury. Her husband died from cancer in 2007, when she was pregnant with their third child. “With two parents, you didn’t have the guilt. If one of us worked late, then the kids had the other parent. It’s a little bit different if you’re divorced because the other parent is still there. … There’s no one to trade with (as a single parent). It’s just me, so there’s just guilt if I can’t be there. You feel like you’re neglecting your children.”

In 2013, Raymond received an offer to run the marketing department for BitTitan, a startup in Kirkland that flaunts perks that have come to define tech startups. There are ping-pong tables, free food, exercise equipment — all items designed to keep employees as comfortable as possible so they can stay in the office as long as possible. But a culture that values long hours in the office isn’t necessarily one that is welcoming for parents like Raymond, so she turned down the job.

“Then (CEO Geeman Yip) called and said, ‘I have two kids; I totally understand,’ and he assured me this wouldn’t be a problem. So I accepted,” Raymond said.

Companies such as BitTitan and Limeade aren’t just offering perks that make for a fun work atmosphere. They employ a results-oriented work environment, or ROWE. “Basically,” Raymond said, “you can do what you want so long as you get your job done.”

There are specific elements that can help parents — BitTitan, for example, offers unlimited vacation — but these startups don’t give parents free reign. New parents — mothers and fathers alike — get two weeks of paid leave at Limeade, and three at BitTitan. While larger companies can offer longer leave policies, startups often lack the cash to do so.

“I don’t believe we had any parental leave policy when we began. We played it by ear because we never had anyone take time to leave,” said Yip, who had his two children after the company was founded in 2007.

It’s tempting for a startup to offer only the required 12 unpaid weeks off. When they do graduate up to more generous policies, the costs can restrict benefits, or skew them toward a gendered result. “There are insurance premiums that cover maternity leave,” Yip said. “From a paternity leave perspective, those costs are 100 percent covered by BitTitan.”

To compensate, Yip tries to offer as much flexibility as he can through unlimited vacation time — which can function as parental leave in essence — and a promise to constantly re-evaluate benefits as the company grows. Though the companies’ programs differ, Limeade also places a premium on flexibility.

The Raymond children, Jack, Lola, and Jenna (from left), in the BitTitan lounge

The Raymond children, Jack, Lola, and Jenna (from left), in the BitTitan lounge

Laura Hamill, a staff psychologist who researches employee engagement for Limeade, recalled one company she worked with that responded to low work-life satisfaction scores in surveys by implementing a policy that allowed employees to work from home one day a week. The company even offered to pay for any home-office equipment employees needed.

“About six months later, a tiny percentage of employees had signed up,” Hamill said. “They looked deeper, and discovered that the program went against the culture. One of the ways they knew this was that the CEO would walk the halls at 5:30 every afternoon to see who was still there. There was a mentality that, if I can’t see you, then you’re not adding any value.”

The key to a parent-friendly workplace, Hamill says, is to make sure managers and company policies align with the needs of all employees, parents included. Offer foosball and free dinners for single workers who spend 12 hours a day at the office, but also let parents dip out to take their kids to soccer practice or daycare.

This flexibility is especially important in a nation that doesn’t mandate paid parental or vacation leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only 12 percent of workers are offered paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared with the minimum, even two weeks of paid time off seems generous, but that still pales in comparison to the amount of paid leave required in many nations. Norway residents, for example, receive up to 59 weeks of paid parental leave, and the government covers daycare costs. The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only nations that don’t require paid parental leave.

The lack of regulation, though, does give companies room to get creative with their benefits. The concept of work-life integration that inspired Limeade comes from Tracy Brower, a sociologist and author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work. Brower said every policy a company introduces should have the potential to benefit all, unlike gendered parental leave policies.

“One of the keys to serving working moms is to serve all employees,” Brower said. “The more it’s (framed as) just a women’s issue, the more it stays just a women’s issue. … Policies that support the partner, or the support network, ultimately support the woman as well.”

BUT WHAT OF the concept itself, this almost mythical symbiosis of life at home and life at the office?

“I don’t think it’s a balance,” said Intellectual Ventures’ Bates. “It’s a roller coaster of events that you constantly have to manage, so to me, it’s work-life management. You have to constantly struggle to figure out what domain of your life is going to take the attention.”

It was that type of analysis that led mother Jen O’Twomney to switch jobs in 2013. She was working in information technology with Clear Channel, a company based in San Antonio but with its CEO located in New York City. Sixteen months in, O’Twomney found herself continuously bouncing between Seattle, New York, and San Antonio, drastically limiting time with her daughter, Harriet.

“At this point I started questioning whether I could be a successful mom and a successful career person,” O’Twomney said. “I didn’t feel successful at either one of these (areas) because of that lack of balance. I started questioning whether or not I was going to find it, that maybe I had fundamentally been broken as a person. Maybe having a kid had changed the DNA so I couldn’t be a career person.”

A shift was in order. A friend at Expedia alerted O’Twomney to a possible job, and she ensured the job would allow her the flexibility to spend time with her daughter. “The joke around here is that I interviewed (the hiring manager) for seven hours … and then I hired him,” O’Twomney said. The result: 9:30 to 4:30 workdays, advance notice for after-hours meetings, and no surprise travel.

Robert O’Twomney, Jen’s husband who handles the majority of childrearing, is happy his wife found an employer that, by her account, accepts the variables of parenting. Robert has witnessed a double standard affecting workplace parents. When he brings his daughter to work at Microsoft, for example, coworkers crowd around and are eager to talk. But when a mother leaves the office to pick up her child, those same coworkers will question her commitment. Those biases can have a financial impact, as well, when salaries and bonuses are determined during stack rankings, which Microsoft used until late 2013, and other comparative employee-evaluation methods.

“It always happens for everybody who takes a leave,” Robert O’Twomney said. “It’s more of a, ‘Well, Jim was here the whole year and he kicked ass, and Sylvia was out for three months with a baby.’ Well, did Sylvia kick 1.6 times more ass than Jim while she was here? Then let’s put her above him.”

Balancing work and home responsibilities is not easy; many know a couple that separated due to work demands. But any notion that removes the workplace from the equation makes it impossible to find that balance. When heady employees can find flexible employers, the debate once again becomes how to achieve work-life balance, not whether or not it exists.