By Stephanie Irwin
sirwin@DaytonDailyNews.com

DAYTON | Twice during her 10-hour shift, Joy Shafer gets up from her desk at LexisNexis and slips into a hidden room behind the women’s restroom.

Slinging a black bag over her back, she swipes a security pass at a door with a sign that clearly reveals her purpose: “The Lactation Station.”

Once inside, she makes phone calls, works in her planner, networks with other mothers — and pumps her breast milk.

“Because I’m a working mom, I’m very efficient about multitasking,” said Shafer, 32, a customer support specialist back on the job after taking seven weeks of maternity leave.

“My benefits mean I will be able to care for my family and successfully work in the future,” she said.

Her colleague, Aimee Doles, spent Wednesday at home in Tipp City with her twins, who had the flu. She could attend to them and still do productive office work because LexisNexis installed a high-speed Internet connection in her home during her complicated pregnancy a year ago. “My boss told me, ‘All right, you’re working from home,’ ” she said.

But for Pat Underburger, one of three employees in a small real estate network marketing, balancing her new motherhood at work meant fewer choices.

In fact, there was only one. Worried about losing her job, Underburger, 40, brought her baby to work.

For eight months she breastfed her newborn while keeping the books for Timber Creek Realty in Englewood.

“Quite frankly, we’re not set up to offer some of the larger companies’ benefits,” said Randy Mallott, the agency’s president who gave her permission to try it out. “The only thing we can offer is flexibility. We want to keep our employees.”

Working women and their employers find themselves cobbling together creative solutions to a new reality — that 71 percent of women with children younger than 18 are working. Women will comprise more than half of the increase in total labor force growth through 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“I want to do what I went to college for,” said Doles, 35. “I really need to have a career.”

In more than three-fourths of today’s families, both parents work for pay, says the National Partnership for Women and Families, the workers’ advocacy group that helped draft the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

Evidence suggests that while the FMLA might lighten the load, women continue to get the short shrift.

Women are still more likely than men to have primary responsibility for family, causing them to make certain decisions — not only about the types of jobs they hold, but also about how, when, and where they do their work, according to a 2003 study by the U.S. Government Accounting Office.

Shafer chose to switch to an evening schedule so she is home in the mornings. During her dinner break, she goes home to feed her infant.

Doles continues to work at home from her laptop a few days a week. She didn’t have to go back to work — about a third of LexisNexis employees telecommute from home. “I really needed to have the adult interaction,” she said.

But these decisions can have negative consequences for women’s career advancement or earnings, the GAO reported.

Its research suggests that women also continue to battle social norms and attitudes that are a bit baroque. Many workplaces maintain the same policies, practices and structures that were in place when most workers were men.

Underburger’s idea “was definitely a little awkward at first,” she said. “Particularly among the older male agents, who have a different outlook that women should stay home with their kids.”

Meanwhile, experts say families are working more hours than in previous decades, and they are feeling significant stress from trying to balance work and family.

“I’m always trying to figure out how I can get the maximum amount of work in the minimum amount of time,” Shafer said.

Also at issue is a coalition of business interests pushing to peel back provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The FMLA requires companies with 50 or more employees to offer 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave. More than 50 million employees have used the rule since it was enacted.

It was reassuring to know that when she took maternity leave, the idea of losing her job never crossed her mind, Doles said.

At LexisNexis, pregnant employees use short-term disability to take maternity leave. In the rest of the work force, 43 percent have access to some kind of paid leave. Most often they use paid sick leave and vacation time.

For women in lower-paying jobs, unpaid maternity leave isn’t an option. Their jobs prevents alternative work arrangements.

But without her company’s flexibility, Doles said, motherhood and working would be more stressful.

Like Shafer, she is accustomed to multitasking.

By 10 a.m., her girls are napping, and she has carved a space among the toys on her kitchen counter top for her laptop.

With a cup of coffee and her husband home to help, she will comb through e-mails, fold some laundry, maybe take a conference call.

“It’s business as usual,” she said.