Working Moms: A Balancing Act

Blue skies, white picket fences, 2.5 kids, moms who baked fresh apple pies, and breadwinner dads that came home to their loving families after a long day's work -- this has been an iconic American Dream: simple, idyllic and affordable.

That dream has certainly changed -- women today rarely have time to stop and smell the roses (much less the fresh, baked apple pies) as they struggle to have careers and families.

According to Carol Evans, founder and CEO of Working Mother magazine, it's not about deciding between staying home or working.

"We're way beyond that argument," she said. "Seventy-one percent of all mothers in this country work today. And frankly, if a lot of them decided, 'Well, hey it's a lot easier, I'll just stay home,' the economy of this country would come to a grinding halt."

When Elizabeth Vargas departed from her anchor desk job on "World News Tonight," she reignited the ongoing debate about work and home.

"20/20" wondered why so little progress had been made on issues like paid maternity leave, affordable child care, and flexible work schedules. After all, it seems like at election time every politician is a working mom's best friend.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., author of 1993's landmark Family and Medical Leave Act, says despite past promises from politicians, the government has done little to improve the situation.

"Every time I try to get a nickel more for child care or additional support for these things, I run into a stone wall," he said. Not just from the current administration, but also from "their allies in Congress."

The Juggling Act

"20/20" spent time with three mothers who all worked for family-friendly companies, and who found that even with that advantage, it was still a struggle.

Martha O'Connor, a management specialist at Verizon and her husband, a National Guard recruiter, spend an astronomical amount on day care for their two young sons.

O'Connor said her day-care bill was her single biggest expense. "[It's] double what my mortgage is."

Likewise, Kate Cronin, a married executive at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and a mother of three kids, says a lack of flexibility means America's kids spend too much time on their own.

"Everyone wonders, 'Gee, what's going on with the youth of America?' What's going on with the youth of America is the parents of America are out working," she said.

And Michelle Porter, a divorced mother of two working for Carnegie Mellon University, still remembers how frightened she was just telling her boss she was pregnant.

"I was very nervous, and I didn't know how they would react," she said.

Furthermore, for millions of mothers the choice to stay home ended the day it took two incomes to support their households.

"20/20" interviewed several other working moms who shared their insights.

Lynn Scott, an executive in the music industry and mother of three, said she found it insensitive when people told her, "'Well, you need to quit. You should quit.' And then I say, 'OK. So then what happens? Who's going to pick up my financial 50 percent?'"

Earline, a carpenter and mother of two from Harlem, N.Y., said that she knew of "women who are working two minimum-wage jobs and they have children to take care of."

Looking for Some Sympathy

Nisha, another working mother, said, "I'm not trying to be a superhero here. I'm just trying to find the balance."

Many of these women voiced frustration because they never knew how difficult it would be to strike that balance.

Jennifer, a working mom and business owner, told "20/20" that "It was really devastating because I wanted to be everything and do everything, and I realized then that I just couldn't do it."

Los Angeles-based radio talk-show host Tom Leykis is not sympathetic to this new reality.

"20/20" visited Leykis as he discussed working-mom issues with his listeners. "We should feel sorry for them. They're trying to balance work and home, kids, and career concerns, and we ought to be helping them out," he said. "I don't see why that's a job for the rest of us."

And many of his listeners, including other women, agree.

One woman called in to say that, "Maybe they should leave their childbearing uterus at home. Why work?"

The Bottom Line

Working mothers, especially lower-income moms, say they struggle because of a corporate culture in the United States that denies them flexibility or day-care benefits.

"I am not investing money in order to change society or make things easier for working mothers," Leykis said. "I'm interested in companies that want to make a buck."

A woman caller responded: "A company run by a bunch of men honestly doesn't want women leaving on maternity leave. … It's just unproductive."

A male caller named Patrick said, "We can't hire single mothers because of all the times of waiting for phone calls, leaving early, the kids getting in trouble at school."

Another woman called in to add that she made hires "for a company and we actually don't hire women that we think are going to have children."

Child-Free Workplace, a Reality

"20/20" found a number of online communities and organizations dedicated to speaking out on behalf of the "child-free."

One child-free woman, Aimee Foley, wrote to "20/20" saying, "While I'll probably never own a business, if I did, I would do whatever necessary, law be damned, to be sure that no women worked for me. I would be too concerned with her personal choices affecting my business."

She continued, "I just cannot imagine having important business foiled by a missed bus or a sick minor at home that she would put first."

But wasn't America founded with a competitive, can-do spirit, where people pulled themselves up by the bootstraps?

Absolutely, Dodd said, but a person can't embrace that spirit if they're worrying about their children.

"When it comes to this administration," Dodd said, "too often it's been, 'You're on your own. … This is not the job of government. This is your job.'"

Dodd has introduced legislation that would broaden the scope and coverage of the original Family Medical Leave Act.

He is looking to create a pilot program to help states design ways to offer six weeks of partial or fully paid leave, which would count toward the 12 weeks of unpaid leave for eligible employees who take time to care for a child or a family member.

The new version also would make an additional 13 million working men and women eligible for the act, expanding coverage to employers with 25 or more workers.

"A lot of employers feel this is a great burden for them," he said. "And in every study on areas of productivity, profitability and growth, 90 percent of the employers have reported either no negative impact or actually a positive benefit in terms of employee loyalty, in terms of productivity of those employees."

Karen Czarnecki, deputy assistant secretary of labor, said requiring companies to offer such benefits were bad for business.

"I think mandating such benefits across employers of all kinds will hurt our economy," she said. "We'd end up losing jobs. I really think the economic consequences would be dire."

Furthermore, she notes, it's not the kind of system we've chosen to be governed by.

"We believe in free markets here. We believe in letting individuals make choices for themselves, and not giving all of those decisions to government."

Time for Change

Working moms say they've been on their own too long in a world still dominated by men.

"Women's issues are undervalued period, end of story," Evans said. "Women have a very quiet voice because we don't have very many bodies in the places of power."

With a change in Senate leadership and Nancy Pelosi set to be the new speaker of the House, will women's issues have to remain on the back burner?

Joan Blades, founder of Moms Rising, a new organization supporting motherhood and family issues, says that while mothers care passionately about the issues they're facing, most think their problems are unique.

"They each think it's their own individual problem, or just them and their friends," Blades said.

Working mom Martha O'Connor conceded that "We all talk about it -- but no one really talks about it."

Another mom added, "No one steps up to take action."

Moms Rising, however, already has 55,000 members and new powerful supporters in Washington, D.C.

Blades says the group is committed to finally making a difference.

"We need to organize politically and make it really clear to our leaders not only do they need to say nice things about mothers and children and families, they need to make this country family friendly," she said.