If you're a working mother, you're far from alone in feeling overwhelmed. Along with grueling work hours, data show you can face discrimination at work because of the conflicting demands of motherhood. And all the while, social pressures are mounting on you to be a perfect parent.
So it shouldn't surprise you that more working mothers see part-time, rather than full-time, work as the ideal employment situation.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that when working mothers were asked about their "ideal" situation, only 21 percent cited full-time work, down from 32 percent in 1997. Instead, 60 percent of this year's respondents cited part-time work as "ideal," up sharply from 48 percent a decade earlier, while 19 percent of employed moms this year said they'd prefer not to work outside the home at all.
Of course, many mothers can't afford to scale down to part-time work - if they can even find it. But the mounting appeal of that arrangement highlights the extent to which today's conditions beleaguer working moms.
Not only are they expected to meet corporate America's drive for productivity - and all the demands that entails - but they're also counted on to play a key role in their children's lives. All the while, some moms also may be caring for aging parents.
Often, there aren't enough hours in the day to juggle all these tasks, says Marlene Star of Westchester County, N.Y. She knows the toll full-time work can take on family life. The mother of three, who works as an editor in New York City, says she doesn't get enough face time with her kids. "I don't know the names of all my children's friends and I wouldn't recognize them if I bumped into them. I don't know their parents - or my children's teachers - as well as I would like. I also can't pick up the kids after school. There is a lot of being in touch that I don't have" as a full-time employee. But with part-time work, "there would be many school events and parent interactions I could get involved with."
"I very much like my work," she says, "I'd just like less of it."
To be sure, many employers have noticed the rising concern among employees about excessive work demands - and the desire for more "work-life balance." And at least a few organizations have been adopting novel approaches to address these and other needs of today's workforce.
But to critics, the most common methods of addressing employees' work-life balance - such as flexible working schedules, telecommuting, and (to a much lesser extent) job sharing - haven't filled the need. In some cases, they seem to have made matters worse.
When some employees have tried to use such programs, some critics charge, they've been stigmatized as uncommitted workers, thereby heightening their frustration.
Consider the findings of Pamela Stone, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City. As she chronicled in her book, "Opting Out?," Ms. Stone interviewed 54 previously high-powered working mothers across the country who had left the business world.
Two-thirds of these mothers had been able to arrange some kind of part-time work schedule after becoming parents. But even this arrangement proved unworkable for all these mothers.
"Their work hours started ramping up, they felt dead-ended in their jobs, and their meaningful responsibilities were taken away" because they had become part-time workers.
"As the women encountered all this negative reinforcement, they started disengaging," says Stone. "They began wondering why they were taking time away from their family for a job they hadn't been trained to do."
Mentors keep moms on track
But clearly, some businesses realize they can't afford to lose such talent. And as more workers in general - not just moms - seek greater work-life balance, as well as career development, new solutions to these needs are emerging.
For instance, just over a year ago, the international professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in New York launched Full Circle. The program is designed for PWC professionals who want to leave the workforce for up to five years to care for their children or parents. During this stint, program participants get annual training to keep their skills fresh. They also have a coach - a PWC employee - who keeps in touch with them while they are gone and helps them transition back to the firm when they are returning to work.
The idea is to retain talent, explains Jennifer Allyn, PWC's managing director in the Office of Diversity.
"Every time a professional leaves us, it costs the firm $80,000 in recruiting costs and lost productivity," she says. The New York-based Deloitte & Touche USA is now rolling out a broad new program, called Mass Career Customization (MCC). According to the firm, this "unique" program is "designed to encourage more robust and transparent career conversations."
Specifically, it provides all 40,000 of Deloitte's US employees with a framework for discussing with supervisors their career goals in four areas: pace of career progression; workload; location and schedule of work - i.e., where and when it gets done; and work role, which involves an employee's position or job responsibilities.
"The objective is to allow each employee to partner with his or her supervisor to customize their career path over time by making choices along each of those dimensions, understanding the trade-offs of their choices," said Anne Weisberg, a director in the Women's Initiative at Deloitte. She is also coauthor of the new book, "Mass Career Customization."
Since MCC will involve all employees, it "will be much better for working mothers" than flexible working arrangements, Ms. Weisberg says. "It will eliminate the stigma attached to making career choices that are different from the norm."
New programs attractive, but rare
But, as attractive as such programs may sound, they're still unusual. For many moms, corporate America still doesn't fill their need for work-life balance. Some of these mothers - who don't want to quit working - chart their own courses, taking such steps as changing careers or becoming self-employed. And some of these creative efforts have paid off well.
Take the case of Jennifer Nelson of Hopewell, N.J., a mother of three who has switched careers from journalism to teaching. No longer confronted with eight- to nine-hour work days, she's now back at home by roughly 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. She's also able to do some class preparation at home, including writing up lesson plans and grading papers.
"Teaching is not overly stressful and can be fun," she says. "And if you have to work full time, it's a more family friendly profession than many others, because it lets you have more time at home with the kids."
Given her family responsibilities, Ms. Nelson says she "would love to be working four hours a day." But she would not prefer to be a stay-at-home mom.
"Having a job helps you have your own identity, while earning a living and hopefully doing something you enjoy. Without a job," she says. "I'd get bored, and I'd miss the social interaction at work."
Fit work in around family schedule
Lisa Skvarla, of West Seattle, Wash., manages a martial-arts studio and keeps up a part-time acting career. And in both cases, the mother of two fashions her work hours around her family's schedule. For instance, she'll teach martial arts classes in the morning while her kids are in school.
And when she returns for evening classes, her kids are often with her. In some cases, they even assist with teaching classes. Her husband also helps teach classes in the evenings.
"I've structured my work around my family and my family around my work," Ms. Skvarla says. "Having such flexibility in my life goes a long way toward helping me be a mom and be happy."
The next time a credit-card offer comes in the mail, it might be worth looking to see if the terms are any friendlier.
For example, Chase Card Services elected early this year to scrap the arcane practice of two-cycle billing, in which the average daily balance is calculated over two billing cycles instead of one. The extended duration can result in higher finance charges for those who carry a balance on their card.
In March, Citigroup announced it was dropping two of its credit-card practices: hiking a card customer's rates and fees at "any time for any reason," and the practice of "universal default," where interest rates on a card can be jacked up if the cardholder fails to pay any other bill on time.
And in June, Chase and Bank of America announced programs to help customers better understand and manage their accounts.
To credit-card issuers, the new offerings are designed to please customers. But to skeptical observers, the moves are viewed as efforts to thwart a possible government crackdown.
Amid a raft of complaints about card issuers' practices, the Democrat-controlled Congress has stepped up its focus on cardholders' concerns. The results so far this year: various bills introduced to curb perceived abuses, and several Congressional hearings.
At one hearing in March, Wesley Wannemacher told lawmakers how he went over the $3,000 credit limit on his new Chase credit card in 2001, spending $3,200 to pay for his wedding. Evidently, the charges weren't paid off promptly, and his debt began to pile up. In all, Mr. Wannemacher, of Lima, Ohio, racked up fees and interest charges of $7,500, including 47 over-the-limit fees. And "if they hadn't reviewed my account, I would have paid another $6,110 on a $3,200 debt," he stated.
The reaction to his story was swift: At the hearing, Chase announced it would end over-the-limit fees on accounts that exceeded their credit limit for more than 90 days.
The credit-card industry has responded proactively because "they don't want government regulation," says Ellen Cannon of Bankrate.com. "They feel that if they show good faith, and make some changes to their practices, the government may simply go away."
But that may be increasingly harder to do. In addition to complaints, various studies, including a Government Accountability Office report issued last October, have shed light on today's higher fees. And some of the tougher credit-card practices have affected more than just fringe cardholders with poor credit ratings. They've also "hit mainstream card customers," says Robert McKinley, CEO of Cardweb.com. "That's where the backlash is coming from."
To be sure, consumer advocates say they believe the card industry is entitled to profits -- which it clearly obtains. According to Mr. McKinley, pre-tax profits for the bank credit-card industry (not including store cards) last year totaled $37.5 billion. That compares with $27.8 billion in 2002. "For some banks, credit cards are the biggest profit center," he says.
But to some consumer groups, some of those profits stem from deceptive "tricks and traps," and charges that seem to some like gouging. Oft-heard complaints include: fees that pile up and trigger additional charges, such as over-the-account-limit fees; and prolonged penalties, sometimes for slight infractions of a cardholder's agreement. "[Fees for] payments received even one minute late can reach as much as $50 and send a card-holder's interest rate to 30 percent or higher," notes Tamara Draut, of the public policy group Demos, in New York.
The 2007 credit-card survey by Consumer Action, released in late May, showed that the average interest rate on cards surveyed was 14.53 percent. But if cardholders paid their bill late, their interest rate could jump to an average of 24.51 percent, as a penalty, and even reach as high as 32.24 percent. And, among banks with balance transfer fees, six of those surveyed have no caps on the fees charged.
To Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, an advocacy group that helps people understand credit cards, the five worst credit card practices are:
- Immediate application of penalties for late payments or exceeding the card's credit limit. This sometimes occurs even if a card payment is received shortly after a specific cutoff time, such as 2 p.m., on a due date.
- The ability to raise an account's interest rate "at any time for any reason."
- Applying payments to balances on the account with the lowest annual percentage rate (APR) instead of the highest. As Mr. Arnold explains, some cardholders use the same credit card for purchases as well as for cash advances and for taking in balances transferred from another card. Since each of these functions usually involves a separate interest rate, any payment typically applies to the balance with the lowest APR, allowing interest on higher-rate balances to mount up faster.
- Use of so-called "trailing interest." For those cards with no grace period, that's the interest charged on their outstanding balance between the cutoff date of their last statement and the date their payment is posted by the issuer. For example, say your statement cutoff date is June 1, and you've carried a balance from your last billing cycle. Although you mail in your payment promptly, it isn't received until June 10. Over those 10 days, that account has continued to accrue interest even though you paid off your balance in full. So, in your July statement you'll be charged interest on those 10 days in June.
- Lack of a cap by some card issuers on balance-transfer fees. That fee, typically 3 percent of the amount being transferred, was often limited to about $50 or $75. "But some banks have removed that cap, which can create a much larger charge," Arnold says. Thus, "instead of paying a $75 charge, consumers transferring, say, $10,000, to another card would pay a $300 fee."
While Arnold believes such tactics can amount to "gouging," the card industry sees things differently. To card issuers, customers enjoy some decided advantages with today's cards -- among them, often no annual fee and, on average, lower APRs than existed 20 years ago. Moreover, credit-card lending is much more broadly available than it was years ago.
But the industry "has to be able to price for the risk" taken with what are, in effect, unsecured loans, notes Ken Clayton, managing director of card policy at the American Bankers Association. "When a consumer we lend to poses a credit risk, we want to [be able to] price that [risk] appropriately. That means higher-risk people bear higher costs, while lower-risk people -- which are the majority of Americans -- bear lower costs."
To Mr. Clayton, the industry is "more than willing" to work with policymakers to "address concerns without bringing unintended consequences." These could include "higher costs for consumers and reduced access to credit."
But for now, anyway, cardholders seem to be enjoying some unusual opportunities, especially while uncertainty prevails over what Washington might do.
In light of the current political climate, consumers themselves may be able to win better card terms, suggests Arnold of CardRatings.com. "If you have an interest rate you consider high and a good credit score, this would be a great time to ask your card issuer for a lower rate. While the industry is under the gun, you're more likely to get these types of concessions," he says.
How to find the best card deals
Credit cards may come with some dire-sounding fees and practices -- names like "universal default" or "trailing interest." But on the brighter side, many offerings also have tantalizing attractions -- such as no annual fee, low or 0 percent introductory interest rates, and alluring rewards programs, such as cash-back and airline-travel benefits.
And some offerings have eye-opening perks: Take, for instance, the new Motiva credit card that Discover Financial Services unveiled this year. Users who carry a balance from month to month are rewarded for paying their bills on time. Specifically, when cardholders make on-time payments for six consecutive months, they get back, in cash, their next month's interest as reward. In addition, cardholders get a cash-back bonus of up to 1 percent on all purchases made with the card.
In 2006, American Express rolled out its Clear credit card. This "no fee" offering -- no annual, late, or over-the-limit fees -- also provides what the company calls "a generous and automatic rewards program." It includes "valuable financial management tools" as well, the company says.
Such multifeatured cards can be ideal for consumers "who don't want a bunch of fees, but still want rewards," says Desiree Fish, a spokeswoman for American Express.
With so many cards available today, consumers may lack the time to sift through the crowded field. Happily, some websites -- among them, Bankrate.com, CardRatings.com, and CardTrak.com -- can help.
In addition, consumers can visit Consumer Action (CA) online at www.consumer-action.org. Its 2007 Credit Card Survey, for example (the link is currently posted on their home page), lists which card issuers use what kinds of fees and other charges. The report also names the 10 cards in CA's survey with the lowest interest rates.