Research shows that working mothers are just as capable as parents and their kids have just as good if not better outcomes, says parenting author Lara Bazelon
Working mums often find themselves in a common bind: they often feel that they have to parent as though they don’t work, and perform in the professional workplace as though they don’t have children.
Ambition is a toxic, complicated state for women to begin with, and this goes doubly so for mothers. Just ask Hilary Clinton, who back in 1992 endured a decades-long backlash (and never really recovered from it) after noting: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was pursue my profession.”
This is partly why when American law professor and author Lara Bazelon wrote a New York Times article in 2019 with the headline, ‘I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids’, it promptly went viral.
“A large segment of the people who read it thought I was a cold-blooded monster, and then all the working mothers who read it said, ‘this is my story.’ And hundreds of them wrote to me, because someone was finally saying it,” Bazelon says.
This idea became the bedrock for Bazelon’s latest book, Ambitious Like A Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good For Your Kids. It’s a call to arms for all working mothers who still buy into the idea of Having It All.
“The Work-Life Balance and the Selfless Mother are false gods,” Bazelon writes in her book. “I wrote this book in the hope that it will convince you to stop chasing the same mirage and punishing yourselves for failing to attain the impossible. I wrote this book as a resource, a refuge, and a source of reassurance. It isn’t selfish to want to feed your brain or your soul. It isn’t wrong to think that doing so requires something more than being a mother. It isn’t detrimental to focus on the ability to support yourself or your children or to make sacrifices early on for the flexibility that comes with rising higher in your field or having more professional choices.”
There has been a longstanding cultural expectation that new mothers will put their babies and families first; that motherhood is now their Number One job, despite what professional accomplishments came before that.
“The problem is that we’re supposed to feel like [motherhood] is our sole motivating purpose in life,” Bazelon says on an early-morning Zoom call from her California home. “It’s a huge motivating purpose, but it’s not everything. And we don’t put it on dads to be like, ‘I’m a dad first’. I find the whole idea bizarre because it’s so reductive and deprives women of all kinds of agency in the world.”
Bazelon says that prioritising work, and not just for professional reasons, should be celebrated. Economic freedom isn’t just important for women: a woman who takes pride in her life outside the home also provides a positive model for her children.
“It’s so much easier to be present when you get to be absent,” says Bazelon. “If you put this expectation on mothers that every moment is special, you’re just setting them up for failure and setting them up to be distracted. If you let mothers have a life, they know they have this quality time coming up with their kids, it’s easier for them to focus and be joyful, because they are happier themselves. I know myself, if I’ve had a productive day at work, I’m much better at being present as a parent. I’m a happy, fulfilled person. It’s much easier for me to listen to my kids talk about their day and interact with them and actively listen to them.”
Bazelon cites a recent poll that notes that 25pc of respondents believe that working mothers actively harm their children. Her own research is to the contrary.
“Research shows that working mothers are just as capable as parents, and those kids have just as good if not better outcomes. It’s just weird that we’re clinging to this Betty Crocker, or Leave It To Beaver trope, because the research simply doesn’t bear it out.
“I mean, those moms [in previous generations] were unhappy,” she adds. “They were drinking, they were bitter. They were financially insecure. That’s not good for the kids.”
Ambitious Like A Mother is a refreshing and thought-provoking read, especially for any woman who finds herself flat out on a work-parenting treadmill, with little time for anything else. Bazelon’s own mother, who met her husband while still in her teens, proved a vital role model. She was determined to have an identity outside her marriage and four children, and soared high in her chosen field of medicine. So far, so great… except that Bazelon’s mother worked extremely hard and seemingly non-stop. That, too, needs to change for the current generation of mothers. It’s not uncommon for working mothers to fall into a trap where the only two balls considered worth juggling are the home and the professional job, with any personal time coming a very distant third.
“My mom got to watch Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday night, and that was her one thing, her one hour in the week. And even when she was doing that, she was still paying bills or knitting a sweater,” Bazelon recalls.
Central to Bazelon’s message is the idea that ambition and good motherhood are not mutually exclusive. “There’s just this weird pressure that’s put on women to hermetically seal off the different parts of their lives, and not allow any [crossover],” Bazelon adds. “I feel like the pandemic, with it’s Zoom bombing from the kids and the pets, really put a lie to the idea that people can see your personal life and not trust you to do a good job.”
When applying for tenure [a permanent contract] as a law professor in a prestigious university, Bazelon was advised by her predecessor to remove pictures of her children from her desk, and essentially whitewash any mention of having a family.
“The person who had come up for tenure right before me had two young kids and was a mother, and she did not get tenure. The person advising me said, ‘The more you can get your kids out of the picture, the better for you’. I thought about it and realised I just couldn’t do that. It also felt like I was sending a really bad message to women coming up behind me — this idea that the only way to [work] was to pretend that half your life doesn’t exist.”
Redressing the push-pull between work and home isn’t just the onus of women, either. “Men can do a lot,” Bazelon says. “First of all, they can step up at home. I think especially in my generation, and I’m in my 40s, these men presented themselves as progressive and then they got married and had kids and all of a sudden they weren’t really taking up their end. Men also really need to champion women in big and small ways, by publicly proclaiming that ambition is a really good thing.”
As to how women can slough off the idea that professional satisfaction comes a distant second to motherhood, Bazelon says: “We have to normalise it and make it okay. We need more people in leadership positions to come out and tell the truth, which is that being a mother isn’t the be all and end all of their existence. Until that happens, women are going to continue to be afraid to speak those words out loud.”
Ambitious Like A Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good For Your Kids by Lara Bazelon is out now via Little, Brown