Lara Bazelon is the author of Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids, from which this essay has been partly adapted.
Mother’s Day celebrations are typically marked by showy, short-lived presents: flowers, bonbons, breakfast in bed. This year, let’s offer mothers who work outside of the home – and that is most mothers – something more lasting: the gift of affirmation. Prioritizing one’s career, not all of the time, but some of the time, should be a source of pride, inspiring independence, resilience and self-sufficiency in one’s children. To these hardworking women, I say, raise your mimosa in rebellion against the conventional wisdom that mothers are ambitious at the expense of their children. This trope has been trotted out as truth for decades, but the data say otherwise.
Empirical studies showed that the children of working mothers are doing fine – in fact, most are thriving. The daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, earn higher wages and have jobs with supervisory responsibilities, while their sons were more likely to devote time to caregiving and other domestic responsibilities than the children of stay-at-home mothers, according to a 2018 study. The study, led by Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn, assessed 100,000 adult children across 24 developed countries and found that the children of working mothers were just as happy as the children of stay-at-home mothers.
To be sure, there are some qualifiers. The study relied on self-reports and did not measure the intensity or hours of the working mothers’ jobs. Instead, the key question was whether working mothers served as role models for their children. The answer to that question, resoundingly, was yes. These results were a refutation of the ingrained belief that the choice to stay at home – for those mothers who have a choice – is the better one.
I read about the outcomes for the children of working mothers as part of my research for a book about ambitious women with children. Counting myself among them as a workaholic law professor who also tries cases and writes books, I approached the task with trepidation and came away feeling relieved. The data tracked my own experience as a child.
My mother worked a lot when I was growing up. She still does, well into her 70s. From early on, even when I resented the time she was away, I understood the importance of her job, which, as a physician, involves healing people and teaching medical students to heal others. I have always been intensely proud that my mother is Dr. Bazelon. That title signified academic achievement and grit, an escape from poverty, and a forceful rejoinder to the sexist belief that women could not or should not be medical doctors.
My mother made time for me. Not in the same way that the stay-at-home mothers (or, for that matter, the mothers who had fewer children) did for their kids. But when I needed my mother, she was there. I associate my father with my greatest triumphs, and to this day, he is the first person I call with good news. I associate my mother with my greatest vulnerabilities, and she is the person I call when I am frightened and desperate and don’t know what to do. Among the children of ambitious mothers whom I interviewed, reliance on one’s mother – on her sound judgment, her resourcefulness and her support – during life’s worst moments was a recurring theme.
In the course of writing my book, I spoke with the adult children of other ambitious mothers. I wanted to know how they experienced their mothers’ decisions – as an absence and a source of hurt and frustration? With pride and as a source of inspiration?
In the main, those I interviewed spoke of their mothers with great admiration and affection. Most had felt deeply bonded with their mothers growing up, even though they were often absent, and most felt close to their mothers as adults. Many told me that their mothers were role models. These adult children were also ambitious and successful in their own right, some with hard-driving careers and families of their own.
As I was conducting these interviews, I kept coming back to what Sarah Viren, an Arizona State University professor and creative-non-fiction writer, told me about how she and her wife, Marta, approach parenting their two children. Sarah has distinct memories of her own mother writing her dissertation at night as she pursued a PhD in psychology. When she had to study for an exam, she made parts of the drudgery into a game for Sarah and her siblings. “She showed us how she used mimetic devices to memorize diagnoses and we tried to help her think of crazy phrases to use. When she was learning how to give gifted tests, she tested them on the three of us, which I thought was super fun. A lot of what she was doing spilled over into our life – we were involved. She was ambitious but we got to be there. I think that’s nice. Marta and I try to talk about our work with our kids. What we are doing and what that means.”
Sarah remembers her mother feeling guilty for taking shortcuts – pasta dinners with cream of mushroom soup for sauce, fish sticks. “But you know, we loved it,” she said. “We had no idea there was this other world of organically grown vegetables.”
She continued, “‘Having it all’ never resonated with me. I have ambitious friends who have to be good at everything – excellent at motherhood, excellent at their profession, excellent in their relationship. And so they feel like they are failing all the time. And for me, I just want to be excellent in my profession. It is fine to be just okay as a mom. I don’t want to be awful, and if I didn’t do certain things like read to them, I would feel like I was failing, but I don’t have to be the best. I don’t care if I am not succeeding at mom-dom.”
Sarah and Marta’s children are now 7 and 4. Recently, Sarah watched them playing together and asked them what they were doing. “Work,” they told her. I laughed, thinking about watching my daughter frantically typing on a “laptop” she had constructed out of two sides of a cardboard box. “I’m writing, Mommy,” she’d told me proudly. “Just like you.”
When my children are adults, what will they remember about my mothering? Perfectly curated family photographs of the kind used to sell fancy gilt picture frames? Probably not. Blurry images of absence and distraction, the times I was missing? Maybe, but not mostly, I don’t think. My hope is that they remember a textured patchwork, the yelling and the fighting and the miserable parts, yes, but also, and more important, the many times we laughed so hard that tears rolled down our faces – at episodes of The Office, at inside jokes, or just at each other – the visit to the zoo when a seagull swooped down and ate our pizza, the time that their father and I carried them on our backs across an icy stream in Yosemite National Park years after we had divorced, the day we brought our puppy home, the many nights we snuggled together in bed.
What they will also remember, I hope, is my work and how much it meant to my clients, to my students, to my readers, to me. And I hope that those memories will make them proud and also inspired to be equally ambitious in their own right.
The truth is that I love my children beyond all reason.
I feel the same way about my job.
Here is my toast to you, ambitious mothers everywhere. Take hope, take pride and keep the faith. What you are doing isn’t just okay, it’s awesome.
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