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Coveting Not a Corner Office, but Time at Home

Sara Uttech, who works from her home office every Friday, in Fall River, Wis., June 14, 2013. For many middle-class working mothers, climbing a career ladder is less of a concern than finding a position with paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours.
Darren Hauck | The New York Times
Sara Uttech, who works from her home office every Friday, in Fall River, Wis., June 14, 2013. For many middle-class working mothers, climbing a career ladder is less of a concern than finding a position with paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours.

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 for trade shows and conferences; last year she made four trips.

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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.' So I say, 'Well you should ask, and you shouldn't hold it against me that I did.' "

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 actually 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.

By comparison, about half of mothers in the United States are actually working full time, indicating that there are a lot out there logging many more hours than they want to be.

Up Early, Always Moving

Ms. Uttech, a trim, chipper 42-year-old with short brown hair and 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 financially 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 ($2.50 per half-hour for the first child; $1.25 per half-hour for each additional sibling), 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 dirt cups (pudding and Oreo crumble) 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 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 Lutheran 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, who picks the boys up from their after-school program, and spends many evenings coaching their sports teams; and from other family members, like her mother and her brother, who live nearby and help watch the children during school vacations.

"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, career-wise, to ask about working from home some days.

Talking Books, and Life

She found the courage to ask about the arrangement after consulting with the other women in her book club, which in some ways is analogous to the "Lean In Circles" prescribed by Ms. Sandberg's book, although the monthly club predates the best seller by over a decade. (The club is scheduled to read "Lean In" this November.)

It's Ms. Uttech's time, she says, "to just be a woman for a few hours, not a worker and not a mom or any other title."

At a recent Monday evening meeting of the "Book Nuggets" club — so named because the friends all met in the late 1990s while they were volunteering for Ronald McDonald House — five women from the greater Madison area rang the Uttechs' doorbell between 6 and 7, wine, salad and rhubarb crumble in tow.

Over grilled chicken and dessert they spent 10 minutes or so discussing that month's book, the Anne Tyler novel "The Beginner's Goodbye" (withholding judgment, though not necessarily spoilers, upon learning that one of the attendees, Ellie Harrington, hadn't finished it); and probably around 20 more minutes talking about how it reminded them of "The Boy on the Bus," a novel they all loathed when they read it years earlier but for some reason still end up discussing almost every single month.

Book time was mostly done, but the evening wasn't. The rest of the night they spent noshing, guffawing at stories about bizarre pet-sitting adventures (Pam Peterson's specialty), and debating whether it was responsible for Angelina Jolie to write publicly about her elective double mastectomy (Angie Oler, a research specialist at a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had serious concerns about whether Ms. Jolie's celebrity status would distort women's understanding of their own health risks).

At some point that evening, which stretched past 10, the conversation turned to career advice, as it often has — how to approach a boss about getting a raise, say, or going part time. That's what Ms. Oler, 38, did when her first child was born four years ago; lately, though, her boss has been pressuring her to return to work full time.

"If it were up to me," Ms. Oler said, "I would never ever go back to full time. Never ever ever ever in a million years. I think the world would be a much happier place if we all worked fewer hours, like if everyone worked just four eight-hour days, and I think we'd all still manage to get all of our work done."

Working From Home

With support and guidance from the Book Nuggets (and her husband), Ms. Uttech approached her own 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 anyway. She was still actively engaged in office work, including e-mails and conference calls — but could also 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.

"I like that my kids get to see me on Fridays as not so serious, that I can be more of a laid-back, 'fun mom' that day," she said. (Her qualifications as a "fun mom" are the topic of frequent debate among her children.) "It's the day we drive with the windows down," she said.

The Friday telework arrangement went smoothly for a few summers, and eventually she got the courage to ask about staying home on Fridays year-round. Her boss said yes — but of course, Ms. Uttech had already proved her ability and dedication for about nine years by that point.

She says the greatest "pearl of wisdom" she can offer other working mothers — and fathers, too — is to not be afraid to ask for such accommodations, even if the response might be no.

Certainly, Ms. Uttech's experience may not be representative. She was lucky to work under managers who were especially receptive to a flexible schedule request. Her supervisor, Susan Chapman, had never directly overseen an employee who was working remotely — but in a previous position at the state's work force development department, Ms. Chapman had encouraged other employers to set up telecommuting arrangements to create job opportunities for people with disabilities.

And the agricultural association's chief executive, Ellen Bergfeld, had also set the tone that work-life balance was important.

Ms. Bergfeld doesn't have children, but she has demanding responsibilities outside the office raising sheep and breeding Greater Swiss Mountain dogs. Around the time Ms. Uttech first asked permission to work from home, in fact, Ms. Bergfeld boldly left in the middle of a board meeting in Washington because of a family emergency of sorts: her very first puppy litter was about to be born earlier than expected, and her "city boy" husband at home "couldn't deal," she said.

"I didn't really know what the consequences would be at the time, but it turned out all right," Ms. Bergfeld said. She participated in the rest of the meeting by phone, including in a taxi on the way to the airport.

Such precedents, especially from people at the top, make a difference. In the years since Ms. Uttech first approached her bosses about a telecommuting arrangement, the organization has developed a formal work-from-home policy, and now a couple of employees work remotely full time.

Not all employers are so accommodating. 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, says 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?"

Certainly these forces have affected Ms. Uttech's friends and family.

Several years ago her sister-in-law, after having a baby, wanted to reduce her full-time job to part time through a job-sharing arrangement she had devised with another mother. Their employer wouldn't accept the proposed arrangement, though, and the sister-in-law ultimately left for a part-time job elsewhere.

Ms. Uttech says she thinks — or at least hopes — that someday motherhood will be viewed by employers as an asset, as a source of leadership skills and other human capital. Maybe someday managers won't just tolerate family responsibilities but seek them out in potential hires, she said.

"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. "And I'm so much more productive now during the hours when I am working. Motherhood should be a feather in my cap, not a drawback."

—By The New York Times' Catherine Rampell

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