Flexibility is the holy grail for working parents these days. Flextime, telecommuting, conference calls, checking email from home, all of these are eagerly sought after as ways to make it a little more possible to combine a satisfying family life with a full career. But flexibility has some downsides, as well as some limitations, that aren't often considered.
1. Flexibility doesn't really add more hours to the day. It can save you the commute and the need to dress up, but it doesn't magically make the time bind go away. I know someone who after the birth of her first child successfully negotiated to convert her job into a part-time, work-from-home position, with flexible hours. She didn't have paid childcare, however, planning on working while her baby napped, or after her husband came home from work. After several months, she reluctantly resigned, having discovered that she was working every night from 10 pm to 2 am.
2. Flexibility makes it hard to set limits. Cell phones, blackberries, email at home -- while these may free you from the office, they make you more a prisoner of work. We all know the people who check their messages constantly, even while on vacation.
3. Flexibility reduces your negotiating position. Until I read Kidding Ourselves, it had never occurred to me to think about the effects of workplace flexibility on household choices. Mahony points out that when a couple negotiates over child care and housework, having the less flexible job can be an advantage. Moreover, she argues that, unless there are significant social changes, increased flexibility will only reinforce the current gendered division of labor, because predominantly women will take advantage of it.
4. Flexibility forces you to make a constant stream of small decisions. If you know that there's no way you can take off from work on a weekday morning to pass out muffins at your child's preschool, there's no decision that needs to be made. If you have a flexible job, you find yourself constantly weighing the alternatives: maybe you could go in two hours early the day before, but then you won't be able to help get the kids ready for school, and is this more important than your older child's field trip, and what about the dentist appointment next week, and how likely is it that your boss will reschedule the meeting that was cancelled last week for that morning? If you consciously or subconsciously believe that a "good mother" would always be there to hand out muffins, you wind up feeling like you're letting your child down each time you could possibly have rearranged your schedule to be there, and didn't.