Successful careers and motherhood don’t have to be mutually exclusive (Guest commentary)

Family-friendly policies create difficult choice for women

Never mind the women’s movement. It’s much tougher to be a working mother today than it was 20 years ago.

Why? Because both working and mothering have become extreme sports.

Should you work at full throttle, take a career break and stay at home with the kids or search for middle ground? These days, as one working mother recently told me, “Whatever you decide, you just can’t win.”

Working has become the new battleground for mothers, with both the stay-at-homers and out-of-the-home workers feeling a need to defend their choices, critique the choices of others and, when necessary, “spin” the chosen path.

Indeed, to work or not has become the defining question for a new generation of mothers. As a friend recently said: “Today, when you are introduced to another mother, the first question after ‘What’s your kid’s name?’ is ‘Do you work?’”

Another working mother of a toddler summed up the horns of the dilemma: “The ones who work have complexes because they feel they are being evaluated as being bad mothers by the ones who don’t. And the ones who stay home think the working moms look down on them as inferior, passive and stupid.”

Echoing many mothers I’ve talked to, she said everyone acts as if they are happy with their choices but many are privately resentful and angry — especially women who left big careers to look after children.

“Inwardly, they are seething about what they’ve given up. And there is only so much displacement of your competitiveness you can put into arranging a fuller calendar of play dates than other moms.”

The battle lines have grown much deeper for several reasons.

In part, that’s because everyone has a heightened career consciousness and awareness of the impact of work choices on personal lives, and can articulate the issues.

And, in part, it’s because women who try to hold down a full-time job while parenting face a much more demanding workplace than their mothers did.

At the same time, many women today question the choices made by their own mothers, who were the first generation of women to pursue careers over stay-at-home parenting. Their 20- and 30-something daughters, now mothers in their own right, will often see themselves as the abandoned children of career-obsessed parents.

Torn between the rewards of career opportunities and time for kids, many reject their mothers’ choices. They say they don’t want to become like their mothers (which is deeply painful to their mothers, but that’s another story) and they don’t want their children to grow up as they did — “latchkey” kids whose mothers always complained about being tired or were physically present but distracted.

This ambivalence is fuelled by the media which, in recent years, has devoted significant attention to educated women who have chosen to take a career break to raise children, or combined it by working part-time or with other flexible work arrangements.

Ironically, as more companies begin to pay lip service to the concept of family-friendly policies and practices — very few have actually succeeded in creating truly family-friendly environments — it has become even more challenging for women.

In part, this is because everyone is now seen as having a choice about working, often leading to more emotional turmoil and guilt, rather than less.

As one full-time working mother put it: “Before my company introduced flex time, I didn’t really think about my options and whether I should work part-time or telecommute. But now, every time I go to work, it’s like I’m choosing to be a harridan who neglects her kids. I’m choosing money and challenge over my kids’ welfare. Talk about guilt.”

Income issues and assumptions of two-parent families aside — it is a middle-class conceit to think, “You could afford not to work if you were prepared to live with less stuff” — not everyone wants to stay at home, or can afford to.

But not only has work become an extreme sport. So, too, has motherhood.

The popularity of that hideous expression, Yummy Mummy, is perhaps most exemplary of the trend toward the commodification of motherhood.

As one 35-year-old mother said: “Where is there anything in that expression about the desire to be a good parent, or being valued for that? It’s not enough today that you work, and are judged on that. And you mother, and are judged on that, as well. You also need to be yummy in the process. It’s amazing more mothers don’t just lose it.”

The expectations of what it means to be a good mother are very different today. There are so many more areas in which to fail: Cuteness of kids’ dress, number of play dates and quality of enriched activities. If you fail at any, you are a bad mother and your kid is set up for lifelong failure.

So are there any happy mothers, or is it possible to make a winning work versus stay-at-home decision? In Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, author Judith Warner profiles the lives of well-educated working mothers in the eastern United States. She concludes these women are “living on a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret that is destroying motherhood today.”

Warner’s findings surprised me. Certainly, in my research, I’ve found full-time working women who are constantly frantic and harried, a minority of whom second-guess their decisions to have children, and non-working women who harbour deep resentment toward former colleagues continuing to climb the ladder and husbands who have pressured them into staying home.

But there are also many who delight in their decisions, whether to scale down their career or continue up the ladder. What makes them different from those who are unhappy is they have taken their own counsel. They have also taken responsibility for their choices.

They have refused to participate in the mummy wars or to engage in power parenting. More importantly, they have made decisions based on their own needs and desires — not those of partners, parents or other mummies.

So is it possible to have a satisfying career life as well as a personal life as a parent? The answer is yes.

But it requires thought. I look at mothers who complain about their tiredness and busyness, while engaging in alpha-mothering, and I want to ask: “Why are you playing this game? Is this really for your child’s benefit or for some kind of status marker? Do you think you will be kicked out of the mummy sisterhood if the cookies come from a store, the house doesn’t look ready for a photo shoot and your mani-pedi needs to be refreshed?”

Certainly, there are choices to be made. It’s not a high-stakes competition between mothers but it is a high-stakes decision that affects your kids’ wellness and your satisfaction with life.

Barbara Moses is a Toronto-based international speaker, work-life expert and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit for more information.

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