Which would be best part-time job for a mother of five young children: teaching piano lessons at home or working as a medical physicist at a university?
To me, piano lessons seems like the obvious choice. As a kid, I knew lots of moms who did this, including my own piano teachers. It seems like the perfect mom job. You set your own hours and you work right at home. If something comes up, you call up your students to reschedule. What could be more ideal?
I don't even know what a medical physicist does; in fact, I don't even know if that's the right name for the job I'm trying to describe. None of my friends' moms, none of the women in my ward, and no mom I've ever known has been a medical physicist. It sounds like the sort of high-stress, away-from-the-kids job for a mom who is willing to let the nanny raise her kids.
Turns out I'm just plain wrong--at least in the case of my friend Kerry.
She tried teaching piano lessons while her kids ran around demanding her attention. Then she tried hiring someone to babysit during lessons. But her kids still knew she was home and demanded her attention. She finally realized she'd have to take her kids to a babysitter somewhere else in order to teach piano lessons in her own house.
So she went to work at a university hospital as a medical physicist. She found out she could schedule her own hours to go to the hospital, which she does in the evenings when her husband is home. And although she demands a high rate as a piano teacher, she earns more money in less time with the university.
Not every mom who needs to go to work happens to be a concert pianist with an advanced degree in physics, but when faced with career decisions, too often I think we endure the piano-teaching job without ever considering the physicist possibility. We have misinformed ideas about careers that are family-friendly, and we insist on pursuing those options, despite a world of alternatives.
Kerry's experience demonstrates the need to at least investigate those alternatives.
For many mothers, "traditional" women's jobs may be the worst in terms of flexibility in time, location, and minimizing hours vs. income. For example, many female college students pursue education, planning to have summers off and schedules that correspond with their children's. These are clear advantages for moms; but if they thought more about it, some of these young women would prefer a career that allows them to telecommute, set their own schedule, go home early to coach tee-ball, or to work part-time.
My job has some of these flexibility advantages. I teach at BYU-Idaho, where I need to spend a certain number of hours in the classroom and a certain number of hours in my office with students. I can put in the rest of the hours at the desk in my kitchen between feeding my kids, changing their diapers, and finding them new art projects to spread out all over the rest of the house.
In exchange for extra time with my kids, flexibility, and enough money to pay someone else to clean up the mess, I work just about every waking minute (except for Sundays). This trade-off is the right balance for me (as long as you define balance as a teeter-totter with a big kid sitting on the one end grounded while the little kid on the other end is balanced in the air indefinitely). It might not always be the right arrangement for me, and it certainly would not be the right arrangement for someone else with different priorities.
For example, I recently talked with a mom returning to the workforce who is applying for jobs below her qualification level because she has so much responsibility at home. When she goes to work, she wants to do something low-stress where she can just do what she is asked and then go home. Many jobs that offer more flexible time and space accommodations and higher salaries also require more responsibility. To really be there for her kids 100% when she is home, this mom knows exactly the sort of job she needs.
The key for every mom and every dad is to ask, "What type of situation will help me to be the best possible parent?" I'd argue that for many of us, it will mean looking beyond the obvious. It will mean considering the possibility that medical physics might be a better fit than teaching piano lessons, no matter how crazy that might sound.