Can Museum Women Have It All?

working mother

Anne and I are still at work on our manuscript for our book Women+Museums and we are overdue for a post on the world of museum women. This week I’m finishing a chapter tentatively titled “Married, Single, Parent: Museum Women and Family Issues.”  Informally, we’ve referred to it as the “mommy chapter” because it deals with the complex, multi-layered issues of combining parenting and work.

As I interviewed various young women for this section of the book, I was reminded of my own journey as a working parent and as the French say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Two memories stick out: one of interviewing for a job, which I didn’t get (Anne did) when I was at least 10.5 months pregnant with my second child. I remember almost nothing of the interview itself except being enormously grateful that not one person asked me anything remotely inappropriate related to the baby bump which was impossible to ignore. They treated me as a professional who aspired to do a job. I’ve never forgotten it.

The second memory takes place some months after the birth of that child. She was safely ensconced in day care and I found myself lobbying with my then executive director in the legislative office building (LOB) in Albany. Without over-sharing, let’s just say that the LOB wasn’t a friendly place for a nursing mother. Any of you who have come back to work while your child was an infant will understand this and sympathize with the misery of expressing milk in a public washroom, even a marble-sided stall in the LOB.

These memories were prompted by some of the stories from our interviewees all of which describe in exquisite detail the idea of competition and care which every working parent–male or female–must cope with. After all, you’ve invested the equivalent of a small mortgage in graduate school and want to move up the ladder. And yet you have a small person or persons who tug at your heart strings when you’re not there.

While I look back on my own experience with a degree of wistful humor, I realized in listening to today’s generation that opportunity isn’t everything. Going to graduate school, delaying marriage and children, getting started in a museum career are all things we hold out as shimmering opportunities to the women of the Millennial and Generation Y cohorts. And when we tell them humorous stories about needing to nurse in the middle of lobbying the state legislature, what’s unspoken is “I did it and so can you.” Really?

Shouldn’t we counsel young women (and men) entering this field who expect or want to have families that this is a low-paying field particularly for women; that childcare costs a bundle; and that a supportive well-paid partner will make child bearing and child raising easier. Earning $20 an hour while paying upwards of $200 a week for childcare should make anyone question whether work is worth it. More than a few of the women we’ve spoken to have remarked that during the period between birth and full-day school they aren’t earning money, they are simply marking time. And they are unanimous that the Family Leave Medical Act as important as it is, is not paid maternity or paternity leave. They are also united that flex time is key for working parents.

If you are a museum leader or member of a board personnel committee what does this mean? Is it time to revisit your personnel policy? If most of your staff–male and female–is in the child-bearing years are there changes you could make to maternity/paternity leaves, paid childcare, flex time or increased personal time off, that send two messages: one of understanding and a second that while we can’t offer the salary perhaps you deserve, we can offer X, Y, or Z. And since I can feel the hackles of the childless going up, for goodness sakes, if you offer flex time, make it equitable and make staff accountable. You are not “working from home” if you are checking email while walking a screaming baby around the room. As a leader, unpack what working from home looks like for your organization and make it available to everyone in combination with personal time off. And if you are a job applicant, a museum studies graduate student or a newly partnered or pregnant person, read your personnel policy. Understand what it says and what it will mean to you in your particular circumstance.

I am part of a generation built around a feminist ideal that we would work and we’d do it just like men. And somehow we sort of did. Some of us had patient, supportive partners; some of us had higher earning partners or partners with more adaptive schedules and excellent healthcare, and some of us chose to remain single. And we managed. I believe those of you who will stand on our shoulders can have that too, but you should approach all these choices with as much knowledge about the road ahead as possible. This is one instance where knowledge is power.

As always let us know your thoughts. Your comments keep us thinking. And if you are a working museum parent (male or female) with a story to tell, contact us. Conversely, if you are a childless museum staffer, we’d like to hear your thoughts too.

Joan H. Baldwin

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23 Comments on “Can Museum Women Have It All?”

  1. Laura says:

    Your post speaks to me on so many levels. I have had two children while working at my current organization. The position that I was in when I had my first son required a great deal of travel. I can’t tell you how many airport bathrooms, strange conference rooms, rental cars, or fast food restaurant bathrooms I used to pump. Working within the same organization, I transitioned to the ED role while 38 weeks pregnant with my second child and returned to work after only 6 weeks of leave because I felt compelled to do so for the sake of my career. I felt the need to prove that my children wouldn’t stand in the way of my doing a fantastic job and I missed a hell of a lot because of it. My children are 5 1/2 and 14 months.

    The one twist that makes my story different and is the only thing that makes my career possible? I have a wonderful partner in my husband, who has chosen to be a stay at home father. I’m lucky to be living/working in a time when it’s becoming socially acceptable for a man to be the stay at home parent and at a time where gender stereotypes are starting to crumble…even if just a little bit. I don’t know how I could do my job without his support.

    And as a relatively new ED (for one year, 6 days….not that I’m counting) I realize that I need to critically evaluate our personnel policies to be fair and equitable to all of our staff.

    Thank you for this blog. It’s wonderful!

    • Hi, Laura.
      Thanks for commenting. I can’t tell you how many women have variations of your tale–a wonderful, supportive partner. Even those of us who went through this 20 years ago with partners who were a little less evolved or PC have much to be grateful for, but I think we all wish for a world where we could make the choice for both partners to work if that’s what they want, and not depend on one person or another pressing the pause button ’til the kids are in school.
      Best,
      Joan Baldwin

  2. Ruth Brindle says:

    I started my job as the director/curator of a new on-campus museum 15 days before my daughter was born. I did get paid maternity leave as part of the college’s employment package, but I spent part of that leave training my replacement for the job I had before my promotion, part of that leave moving into my new office, and part of that leave dealing with the death of my grandmother (cleaning out the house, funeral arrangements, etc.), so it wasn’t an idyllic 7 weeks full of misty-eyed bonding time. Nevertheless, I *did* get paid leave, and for that I will always be thankful. Until my daughter was 18 months, she spent part of every day at work with me while my husband was in class – again, an arrangement that my employer was comfortable with and that I’m thankful for, because with only one of us working, there was no way we could afford child care. Then, once he was working again, we were lucky enough to find wonderful affordable child care. I never thought I would say this, but those were the easy years. When my husband and I divorced, I had to make the difficult decision that my daughter should live primarily with him – not because I didn’t love her to the moon and back, but because being the only paid employee of the museum meant a LOT of evening events and committee meetings and things that meant I wouldn’t be able to be home after school with her. I’m lucky that he and I get along so well, and that she is a well-adjusted kid now, but seriously, if he wasn’t able to take on that role, I would have had to find another job. There is absolutely no way I could have continued to do this job (which I love) while being the primary caregiver for my daughter (who I also – obviously – love).

    • Hi, Ruth.
      This whole issue of work/life balance in the museum world for those with children and those without is one we’re still exploring. It was clear in the interviews for our last book that many folks steer away from leadership positions because the overwhelming time commitments make living a life difficult. In a world where salaries are depressed, it’s something to ponder.

      If you are interested in a phone interview, please let us know. Thanks,
      Joan Baldwin

  3. Sigh. Hope you’ve included stories for us GenXers living this right now. The past six years of my career have been interesting ones. I wish I had more models and more people to talk through options when I was pregnant. Overall I think I’ve managed to find a good, if tenuous, balance. But it hasn’t been easy. Thanks for bringing the conversation to the front burner.

    • Hi, Elisabeth.
      Thanks for your comment. We hope this book will provide models in lots of different areas not just the family, children, work/life balance one. If you’d be willing to do a phone interview, please let us know.
      Joan Baldwin

  4. simmondskimberly says:

    Although I don’t have any children, I feel like my relationship with my husband suffers because of the amount of time I spend at work as an executive director. He works a schedule of two weeks on, two weeks off, and I spend at least 60 hours a week at the museum each week (not including the time I spend at home working). He likes that I am an independent, hard working woman, but he wants to see me! I feel like if I told my board that I couldn’t be at the museum as often, that they’d tell me to pack my bags.

    • Hello, Kimberly.
      Sixty hours a week seems like a lot. If you were a NYC lawyer hoping to make partner or an investment banker you might have a huge bonus for all the time you’re giving up. What does your board think about your work hours? Is there a personnel committee? Part of good leadership is a healthy balance between home and work. If you feel that’s slipping away perhaps you need to speak with your board about shedding some load. Maybe it’s time for an administrative assistant or some sort of second in command position to allow you the time you deserve. After all work/life balance isn’t just for folks with kids. It’s for everyone.
      Good luck and stay in touch.
      Joan Baldwin

  5. Katy says:

    Funny; I was just talking about this with my therapist today. : ) The search for “balance” is an ungodly uphill battle. In my family, it’s come to look like this: My husband is the primary breadwinner, while I’ve drastically slowed down my career and taken a low-paying job as my museum’s scheduler. Definitely not using my Masters degree, and definitely not on an upward trajectory.

    BUT. My job is 10 minutes from home, and from the kids’ school. “Beneath me” though it is, I genuinely enjoy it, AND I have a fantastic boss (not something that comes along every day). I work 35 hours a week, and that little bit of extra time helps enable me to get the groceries, run the errands, volunteer at school, lead the Brownie troop, and help teach Sunday school…in other words, be the kind of involved and invested parent I hope to be.

    So for now, the balance I achieve is worth the sacrifice…BUT. I’m also 46 years old. I’m constantly asking myself, “How long should I stay in this job before looking for something more challenging…? How long CAN I stay before it becomes impossible to break back into the “real” museum workplace…? By then, will all the people who knew me before, at my still-favorite job some 10-plus years ago, still be willing to give me a chance on a job vs. some 20-something fresh out of grad school, who’s willing to work all the evenings and weekends that I’m not? Will the people who would have been my supporters even still be working there by that time? If I NEVER return to career life in full force, if I retire after 20 years as my museum’s scheduler, will I be okay with the sacrifices I made in the name of family life, or will I have enormous regrets? How can I predict what I will want in five years…?”

    Really, I’ve achieved about as much balance as it’s maybe even possible to achieve…but at the same time, on any given day I feel overwhelming doubt and uncertainty about whether I’m doing the right thing.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Hi, Katy.
      You sound like you’ve got it worked out, and yet working it out so it balances logistically doesn’t mean your brain is challenged or your soul is fed. Maybe you can consult a little bit until you move into the next chapter of child raising? It would put you in the game a bit more, but in a way you could control. Just a thought. In the meantime, comfort yourself with the thought that there are a lot of us who’ve peaked late, are still working hard and enjoying it a great deal. Invest in your peer group, and stay current. One of the things Anne Ackerson–my co-author here at Leadership Matters–always says is to be open to change. That seems hard when you’re balancing the multi-layered responsibilities of family life, but watch for it. Being willing to experiment and take on something new sometimes leads to a completely new challenge and opportunity.
      Good luck and keep reading.
      Joan Baldwin

  6. conspectusann says:

    I also return to work when my son was 5 weeks old, while my husband was the stay at home dad in grad school. Then we switched. Nonetheless, I now have three kids of various ages, and I work as a consultant from home. Like everyone these days, I have student loan debts along with the other mound of bills. Plus, my salary would be wiped out by daycare and after-school care charges (again, 3 kids). And, yes, we have navigated medical emergencies and my husband losing his job. But somewhere along the way we realized our children were only going to be young for a very brief period of our long lives.

    I have the rest of my life to pay those bills off and craft my museum career. The rebel in me realized that I don’t have to build my career in the order that everyone else seems to think I should. We are living in an age where we can become inventive in how we get our work done. Sometimes, it isn’t about breaking the glass ceiling, it is about how creative you can be to get around it- make your own path and own it. (And as my husband has found out, this includes men, too.)

    I am very meticulous in what type of work I take on (or volunteer for) and how it would benefit my resume. In my head there is a stop clock ticking down to the day I return to work full-time.

    In the meantime, multi-tasking has almost become natural as breathing as I have also found myself in the past couple years homeschooling (eldest son’s ballet schedule- I’m still figuring this one out.). So, I smile and think…how am I going to work that into the next job interview. We apply creativity and innovation to our museum programming and exhibits, but maybe we should also consider applying it in career paths.

  7. Erin Brown says:

    I went back to school after my second child was a year old. I finished my BA and was hired at my current institution prior to graduating. I lived with my mother after my divorce, during school and for the first couple years of working. Until I graduated I used DHS daycare assistance to pay for that but then I no longer qualified for any benefits. After paying 12-15k a year in daycare I decided that I could buy a house and pay most of the bills for what I was paying in daycare. So, I moved closer to my work (only a couple blocks away) and by this time my children were old enough to walk back a forth to school and to start staying at home by themselves for brief periods. My facility and the team here are incredibly supportive. Everybody here has the mindset of “family first”. However, there have been times my choices have been questioned. I’m a strong personality and don’t feel compelled often but I’ve had to justify my decisions occasionally. That pressure is always there. Being a single mother with non-committal backup has been hard. There are things I can not be a part of at work because of timing, scheduling, problems getting coverage for kids in the evenings or on weekends, kids illnesses and doctor’s visits, etc. With the tiny staff we have we manage it really well but that’s really because we are fortunate to be working together and all have similar priorities. We take turns for holidays, vacations, and school breaks. It works well here. I have reservations about even considering a job someplace else because I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the same freedoms to be the mom I want to be.

  8. JanePage says:

    The Silent Generation Speaks. You have no idea! I think most of you would be better off if you quit playing the victim, suck it up and moved on. Why do you think anyone cares a hoot. You got where you are, now do a good job and move on!

  9. mleemahon says:

    Up until I started my recent leadership position at a museum, I was always intrigued by columns, articles and books exploring life-work-balance. Reading these topics gave me a sense of belonging to a larger group of women who ‘get it’ and made me feel better for struggling. So, I instinctively clicked through to this post when I saw it on Linked in. I have a 3 year old and a 4 year old, a husband no family nearby and a staff of too many(and too few) so I guess balance lately has been a bit of a joke. My recent response to explorations of these sorts is that I think we’re all over thinking this whole thing. I went to school for music and was always in trouble with my teacher for overthinking and performing from my head instead of just doing it. (Maybe that’s why I ended up in museums!) Anyway, I feel like there’s a bit of that in life, right? Do. Be. Keep Going. Know your limits and do your best. Sometimes your best doesn’t cut it. Sometimes it’s your kid who’s in trouble for jumping on the other kids during nap time and sometimes it’s your department that’s responsible for that risky, wrong decision. Keep going. These books are starting to sound more like a platform for whining than honing in on what actually needs to be done to shift the balance in the workplace/culture/etc. I’m not sure what exactly that is for each organization or county or state, but I’ve become very certain that there is no such thing as a life-work-balance. It’s all life whether we define it as balanced or not. Let’s just hope we all get to finish feeling we’ve done our best.

    • You’re absolutely right. It is absolutely all life, but not everyone manages to keep home from overwhelming work and vice-versa. So maybe the balance thing is a crock, but not everyone innately knows how to shift the balance.
      Joan Baldwin

  10. Jessica says:

    I have no children, because I can’t. Instead I sink my heart into the education department of my museum. That being said, this is a conversation near and dear to my heart. I’m finally in a position to start the adoption process which means I have a benefit most mothers don’t. I get to plan far enough ahead and let my job know that I have started the process.

    That being said, I’m quite blessed in the museum I work in. My director and the Chief of Education value my opinion. While technically I am underpaid, it’s worth it. They both have children and understand that stuff comes up. The entire staff will fill in when something comes up. I watch everyday when something happens, everyone groups together to cover. There may be some grumbling, but it’s because we are all busy. But we all do it. I’ll trade being underpaid for that understanding any day of the week. Even our board is understanding of family obligations…

  11. […] favorite posts were: “Can Museum Women Have It All?” followed by “Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing?” and “Ambition in the Museum […]

  12. […] related to leadership in the 21st century museum environment. A recent blog post of theirs, “Can Museum Women Have it All?”, previews Women+Museums, their upcoming book on the specific difficulties of women, specifically […]

  13. kellykoski says:

    I have a 22 month old and my second child is due in May. As a new mom in a director-level position in a museum, I will say that leadership is truly key to making it work. I would not be thriving if it weren’t for a very supportive boss, an Executive Team that is made up of working mothers who have been where I am now, and the opportunity to flex my schedule when needed to support the needs of my family. I’ve also proven myself to be accountable and that I always get the job done, even at odd hours. Also, it makes all the difference that I have a highly functional team–something that has taken time and energy to build–and that we communicate well together, even when I’m not in the office. Women can do it, but things have to align to make it achievable. And, even in the best of circumstances I’m not sure “balance” is ever really a reality. But it is also worth stating that work-life balance is hard both with and without children in today’s working environment!

  14. […] These are only two stories, and I’m sure there are plenty of stories of small museums adapting well to an employee’s growing family. But as a female ED that could one day go on maternity leave, I’m horrified and angry and concerned every time they share a new twist in their story. Is it just a coincidence that my two friends who have had such difficult experiences both work at small museums? Or is there a larger trend at work here? There are certainly some other stories out there about the challenges of balancing work and museum life. […]

  15. Starlyn says:

    I am ED of a small museum and received 12wks paid maternity leave (yes, I did check in often)and took my baby to work until she was 9 months old. It worked out just great. In fact, it was a banner year for the museum and we won a couple awards. Our organizational culture emphasizes building community and positive relationships both internally and externally (which reflects our subject area as well). I also had been there long enough to secure the respect of the board and staff and had a PT employee who was eager to go off the clock now and then to watch the baby. I don’t think that I realized how fortunate I was at the time!

  16. Grace says:

    A couple points that I want to make:
    1) A supportive partner with a lucrative job is great, but in spite of all the sweet anecdotes, not everyone has that. I have a frustrated husband working an intensive manual labor job and his health is beginning to fail. Every day, I am reminded that he hates his job and that the clock is ticking (regarding how long he can remain working there). However, we decided to have a child, who is now three, and we currently are making our schedules work to ensure that we don’t have to pay for child care. He works nights and I am able to work part time- late mornings through afternoons. The museum can’t afford to hire me on full time. Yet, there is no other job where I could currently have the flexibility needed to keep my child at home, out of expensive childcare that would completely negate one of our incomes. I need to wait until our daughter starts kindergarten before I can even consider exploring alternative career options. So our marriage remains tense and imbalanced and he frequently reminds me of my “wasted” MA degree.
    2) For those above who unhelpfully suggested that we quit complaining, sometimes these things need to come out in the open. If these feelings are left unsaid, they are more likely to be left unexplored and neglected in the museum workplace. Sharing these stories helps “the powers that be” become aware that their staff faces challenges beyond getting the grant, reaching fundraising goals or upping school visitation.
    In addition, I’ve managed to keep most of the plates spinning for the past three plus years, but the one major thing that has been neglected is my mental health. Severe postpartum depression destroyed me but I had no choice but to keep going for the sake of retaining my family and my job. So telling people to stop complaining in one of the few forums that actually asked for our experiences? Thanks. Aren’t you just a ray of compassionate sunshine?

  17. […] them. Sometimes they comment. This week we received a comment from a women in response to the post “Can Museum Women Have It All?” It’s a heart breaker. If you’re inclined, you can scroll the 21 other comments for that […]


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