The Part-Time Bind

It's easy to see how mothers wind up out of the workplace. Sometimes, a lack of maternity leave turns the birth of a child into an all-or-nothing proposition: Leave the tiny baby before you're ready to, or quit your job. Or the child-care options are so dismal, nothing feels right. And, of course, many women simply prefer to be with their children.

But what's less obvious -- or less talked about, anyway -- is what happens to women once they do leave work. To whatever degree mothers who leave work for home choose to do so, they often find themselves in dire financial straits. Indeed, even as the image of the hyper-privileged opt-out mother lives on, recent census figures confirmed that stay-at-home moms tend to be less educated and poorer than the rest of mothers. So, instead of enjoying mommy-and-me yoga or relaxed walks in the park, too many mothers are instead desperately searching for ways to earn money that allow them to continue caring for their children.

This is Rachel Foster's situation. With two girls, ages 5 and 10, she needs to be available for her daughters after school, but she also must supplement the income of her husband, a truck driver who works nights. Ultimately, Foster, who lives in rural Kansas, would like to get her 56-year-old husband, who has driven for more than 30 years, "off the road." He has knee problems and borderline diabetes, and Foster hates the thought of him behind the wheel all night long. Until she had surgery on her ankle about six months before I spoke with her, Foster had the perfect gig, working as a massage therapist around her daughters' schedules. But knowing she would soon be unable to work on her feet for long stretches, she began to look for another way to earn money shortly before the surgery. It was around this time that Foster met another mother, Cindy, through a local online moms' group.

"She was so sweet," Foster says of the woman who talked to her for an hour on the phone before signing her up with a company called Melaleuca. "She is so much more than my business partner; she's one of my best friends." Although the people who join Melaleuca often refer to the people who get them involved as mentors, there are several dimensions to their relationships. Every time Foster buys one of the company's 350 household products, which include cosmetics and cleaning supplies, Cindy earns money. Cindy even earned money simply for getting Foster to sign up in the first place about five months back. Foster, in turn, has the same relationship to the 10 people she's signed up in that time -- all women and all of whom, like Foster, are obligated to buy at least $50 worth of Melaleuca products each month. And so on down the line.

Foster is hopeful that she can eventually make $80,000 this way. After all, the stay-at-home mom featured in a video on the company's Web site said she earned $90,000 in one year through Melaleuca. Yet in Foster's second and third months with the company, she didn't sign up any new customers, and, after factoring in the money she spent buying Melaleuca products, she lost rather than earned money. Cindy spent time on the phone with Foster afterward, helping her "work through" the loss and suggested that Foster's mistake had been to devote too much of her time to helping the women she signed up with their own businesses. "I got into management mode, trying to help them," she explains.

The Internet, where Foster first met Cindy and searched for other work opportunities, provides perhaps the best measure of the desperate need of many stay-at-home moms for part-time, flexible employment. Log on to the "I want to work at home!!!!" group (membership 83,069 at last count) on Cafe-Mom.com, the largest social-networking site for mothers, and you can get a whiff of the despair. In one post, headed "desperatly [sic] need to be a WAHM," "Aiden's mommy" writes that she is looking for work because she, her husband, and their 2-year-old can't afford to stay in their apartment. Anticipating that the family will have only $15 left by the end of the month, she notes that she can't afford to invest in a business. Thus, Aiden's mommy's post reads "no Avon."

A great number of these members are no doubt women whose earning potential is less than or about the same as what they would have to pay for child care. This situation is particularly common for women who have more than one child. A mother of two, for instance, might, depending on her children's ages and the local market rate for babysitting, have to pay in the neighborhood of $7 per hour for each child, or $14 per hour, and so would have to earn more than that per hour for working out of the home to be worthwhile. It's no wonder American women are desperate for part-time work that pays a living wage -- and no wonder they turn to companies like Melaleuca, which have sprung up in response to their employment bind.

a vast, ugly free-for-all has sprung up to exploit mothers searching for flexibility and income. The Internet is so clogged with mom-targeted job scams that a recent Google search for "stay-at-home mother earning opportunity" was capped at 15 million. Some companies require representatives to purchase merchandise that they'll theoretically sell at a profit to other women. Before Foster started her massage business, she spent a year working for Avon, during which she wound up making outlays for inventory, brochures, and travel, among other things -- and losing $2,000.

Other companies require an up-front registration fee for members to gain access to exaggerated or nonexistent opportunities. Work-at-Home-Mothers' Web site (WAHM.com) recently posted an ad from FreelanceHomeWriters.com announcing the dire need for highly paid bloggers, who, according to the site, can make $61,440 per year -- "Cha Ching!" Yet in order to tap into the supposedly gushing river of lucrative writing assignments, women have to fork over a $47 monthly membership fee.

According to Staffcentrix, a company that investigates some 5,000 leads for such jobs every week, entities looking to make money from mothers themselves vastly outnumber real work opportunities online. For every legitimate work-from-home job advertised on the Web, there are some 57 scams, according to Christine Durst, the co-founder and CEO of Staffcentrix. And that ratio doesn't even include spam. Although one would think the reek of hucksterism would deter most job seekers, a startling array of ads announce these "job opportunities" with capital letters, exclamation points, dollar signs, and even, to convey the life of leisure you're supposed to live once you give them some money, images of palm trees. "Get Paid for Being a Mom!" "Your Own Crafts Business Making Photo Jewelry!" "Mom earns $250 in first week!" Many of the "jobs" involve selling everything from herbal energy drinks to mineral makeup, weight-loss powders, organic beef jerky, and Christian party kits, and often sellers have to purchase this merchandise first.

"The more desperate a demographic is, the more likely they are to be bamboozled by scams," says Durst, who has met dozens of women who have been burned by various scams in their search for part-time work. Staffcentrix contracts with the U.S. Army to help find legitimate part-time and work-at-home jobs for military wives (whose unemployment rate is upward of 20 percent, according to Durst), and many women approach her at workshops with their tales of woe. Many of the scams she hears about are not unlike pyramid schemes: disreputable multilevel-marketing companies that require an endless stream of new members. But in addition to having to recruit new dupes, participants in multilevel-marketing schemes such as Melaleuca, Herbalife, and Mary Kay also sell some sort of product. Hoping to distance themselves from both terms, such companies tend to refer to themselves as "direct sales" and give their recruiters fancy names like "independent beauty consultants," as they're called at Mary Kay, or "home business travel agents," as they're called at the multilevel-marketing company YTB Travel.

The vast majority of the people who get caught up in these schemes are women. (Eighty-eight percent of the people involved in direct sales in 2007 were women, according to the Direct Selling Association.) And despite the big promises, most people, not surprisingly, are more likely to lose money than to get rich. According to the calculations of Jon M. Taylor, adviser to Pyramid Scheme Alert and the author of The Network Marketing Game, only 0.13 percent of all Melaleuca participants earn a profit after their expenses and product purchases are taken into account. (It would be difficult to earn enough to rival costs, which include a registration fee, mandatory monthly expenditures on products, purchase of the recommended $199 "value pack" or $299 "career pack," and the cost of advertising to lure new customers.) Thus, according to Taylor, Rachel Foster's chance of winning with snake eyes at craps is about 25 times greater than her chance of succeeding as a Melaleuca distributor.

Many of these companies feed off -- and often wind up eroding -- -women's social networks. Foster found the women she's signed up -- "my girls," she calls them -- through her church, her daughters' friends' mothers, and ads on moms' Web sites. Many companies often encourage women to hold Tupperware-style parties to sell the products. Yet the pressure to exploit other women for their meager resources can end friendships, as it did for someone named Olivia, who posted on PinkTruth.org, a Web site for recovering Mary Kay conscripts. After her best friend recruited Olivia into the company, their relationship fell apart. Olivia describes Mary Kay meetings this way: "Inside, everyone was happy happy shiny sisterly love, etc. Outside, they huddled in packs, smoking cigarettes and ripping others apart with their nasty comments."

There is ample evidence of women being bilked by blatantly fraudulent companies, but these cases are only very occasionally prosecuted. While state and federal laws prohibit pyramid schemes, many multilevel-marketing companies slither in the gray area between outright pyramid schemes and legitimate businesses, making them difficult to nail down and punish. The Federal Trade Commission would be the likely agency to tackle the problem, but its efforts are hampered by a limited budget. According to Staffcentrix's Durst, who is assisting the FTC in an investigation of one predatory multilevel-marketing company, the agency can afford to go after only one of many people involved with the scheme, due to time and money constraints.

Although states tend to struggle with the same budget problems that the feds do, a few have sued multilevel marketers. In 2006, the Montana state auditor sued Ameriplan, a multilevel-marketing company that promotes its health-benefits business heavily to stay-at-home moms. Offering women "a business with no experience needed!" and "huge quarterly bonuses!", Ameriplan could seem like a good solution to someone with a deep-enough need for both money and health insurance. Yet according to the suit, the company didn't actually contract with local health-care providers as promised, leaving the Montanans who participated out of luck and their monthly fee, which ranges up to $59.95. Ameriplan gave the state $200,000 as part of a settlement of the suit, which charged the company with conducting a pyramid scheme, in addition to engaging in insurance and securities fraud.

Ameriplan is significant not only for being a huge multilevel-marketing company that targets women. (Because it's "too much like a pyramid scheme," Staffcentrix's Durst puts Ameriplan in the scam category and won't allow it to post on her company's job boards.) The health-benefits company also provides a window into one of the reasons for many women's lack of decent flexible and part-time work options: our system of employer-based health insurance, which leaves so many women without coverage. Ameriplan not only capitalizes on the overall lack of health insurance nationwide (according to the company's Web site, the fact that seven in 10 Americans are either uninsured or underinsured "presents the opportunity of a lifetime!"), it also particularly homes in on women's lack of health insurance.

Indeed, the lack of a health--insurance system is intimately related to the employment difficulties among mothers. There's ample evidence that a growing number of full-time working mothers would prefer part-time work. A 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of working women who have children under 18 say they want to work part time, up from 48 percent in 1997. Only 21 percent of working women felt that full-time work was the ideal situation for them. (Perhaps this dissatisfaction shouldn't come as a surprise, given that the United States has one of the highest percentages of full-time working women in the world.) While many of these women are working for the extra income, many, too, stay with their jobs because they have no other way to get health benefits for themselves and sometimes for the rest of their families.

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Despite the sordid mess that has sprung from American women's intertwining needs for decent part-time work and health insurance, other countries have succeeded in ensuring women have access to flexible work schedules. A big part of the solution is that all of these countries have universal health coverage, so that working fewer hours needn't mean losing the ability to get medical care. But the European Union has also clearly recognized the need for flexibility in work, having guaranteed parity in terms of pay and benefits for part-timers since 1997. Germany and the United Kingdom have gone further, ensuring workers the right to request to change their hours. But the clear leader in terms of flexible and part-time work options is the Netherlands.

With the satisfaction of family needs and desires in mind, the country has fastidiously created a "part-time economy" over the last few decades, passing and tightly enforcing laws that require employers to grant workers flexibility. While everyone has health insurance, regardless of his or her employment status, the Dutch have also passed a number of protections for part-time workers that allow men and women to make work fit into the rest of their lives, instead of the other way around. A 1982 agreement solidified the right to cut down work hours without sacrificing benefits. And subsequent laws ensure that a worker's schedule can't be an issue in whether he or she has a contract extended or terminated.

Having harnessed the political will to make decent, well-paid, part-time jobs with good benefits available, the country now has the highest rate of part-time work in the world. Three-quarters of working Dutch women have part-time jobs -- and not the low-paying, low-status type you find in the telemarketing, food service, and retail industries where so many American mothers toil. (Multilevel-marketing schemes are few and far between in Holland, and companies masquerading as health-insurance providers are nonexistent.) Essentially, Dutch citizens can tailor almost any job to a less than full-time schedule. Because nearly a quarter of working men (22.5 percent) also choose this part-time option, many Dutch couples have found a way for both parents to work and spend significant amounts of time with young children, and the country has taken an important step away from the overwork and overwhelm that define life in so many developed economies.

The part-time protections have been credited with raising women's employment -- which is higher than the American rate -- as well as boosting national fertility, because women are more open to having children if they can be moms while also maintaining their careers.

In their toy-filled apartment on the outskirts of Amsterdam, Nicolette Bunnik and her husband, Peter Floor, are juggling the tasks of setting the table and putting the finishing touches on bowls of chicken and vegetables. Their sons, 7-year-old Thomas and 5-year-old Berend, play with trains on the kitchen floor. While the boys' sounds are largely playful ones, they escalate as the evening wears on, and by the time dinner is ready, everyone seems eager or perhaps happy to eat.

I went to the Netherlands hoping to get a sense of how spouses and partners who both work part-time operate. And, if the country falls short of being a domestic Eden, I witnessed more relaxed and pleasant family scenes there in one week than during the rest of my travels throughout the United States. Indeed, by American standards, Nicolette and Peter have a distinctly sane and egalitarian child-rearing routine. Neither one is locked into any parent-related task, be it making and packing lunches, dropping the boys at school, or bringing them home afterward. They both do all of these things, although who does what changes according to the weekday, because both Nicolette and Peter are home with the boys a fair amount. And the boys seem as excited to be with one parent as with the other.

A high school art teacher with shoulder-length blond hair, Nicolette now works 70 percent of full time, putting in four days a week, three of them only from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. Until two years ago, she worked half-time (because she is on an academic schedule, either way she is entitled to 13 full weeks of paid vacation). Meanwhile, Peter, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, spends four days a week buying and selling construction equipment for a small Dutch company. In addition, his employer has agreed to accommodate a "calamity care" schedule, so he stays home when either of his sons is sick. Although Peter fears that his decision to go part-time may have limited his opportunities for advancement within the company, he's still pleased he made it and relishes the ample time he has to spend with his sons.

The Dutch system is by no means perfect. As Peter noted, some men feel that opting for part-time schedules limits their professional options. Some part-timers also find that it's harder to increase work hours from part time back to a full-time schedule as their children grow, because employers aren't required to restore schedules back to their former, higher level after an initial reduction.

Fiona, for instance, a single mother I met in the small city of Zaltbommel, has wanted to increase her work hours since her son turned 4 but has been unable to do it. Some women have also criticized the part-time solution as perpetuating the power differential between men and women. Certainly, the Netherlands doesn't do as well as Sweden, for example, in terms of gender equity. Despite the fact that men and women have the same legal rights with regard to part-time schedules, women still make up the overwhelming majority of part-time workers, are responsible for more child care, and earn less than men do.

Yet if Dutch women continue to shoulder most of the domestic burden, they are at least getting more help from their male partners than most American women do. Their access to high-quality part-time work is built into the system, leaving them with more financial and professional stability, more time to be with their families -- and less vulnerability to the kind of mercenary forces that prey on mothers in the United States.

The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, copyright © 2010, published by Wiley & Sons, excerpted here with permission.

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