The Working Mother Mythology

I started tracking “working mother” on Twitter a few weeks ago, thinking it would lead me to content and tweets that I could relate to and potentially share with friends. But what I saw pop up after a just a few days of tracking this topic was that I was seriously deluded when I assumed that I would instantly connect with the plight of the average working mother. I thought that working mother problems were my problems. But they’re not. My problems are not problems at all. They’re just the symptoms of being one of a lucky few women who have the luxury of being able to enjoy work full of meaning, career success, and an emotionally satisfying relationship with my family. And to choose how I combine these things.

It’s not completely my fault – I have certainly had my own misguided assumptions instilled and reinforced by others, magazines like Working Mother or Pink, columns and articles I’ve read in the NY Times and New York Magazine, like “The Opt-Out Revolution” that Lisa Belkin wrote for the NY Times in 2003. There are enough books, articles, blogs and even the recent film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” that made me think that I could consider my issues as part of a larger societal question.  So many women seem to struggle with finding the right balance, seem to wrestle with guilt about the choices they make. In this context, it is easy to get caught up in a sense that the “problems” I face with are the problems of working mothers writ large.

I’m talking about problems like having to wonder if I’m really fulfilling my potential by allowing my professional life to slow down the teensiest bit because I have two kids under 4, or wondering if the stay-at-home moms at my sons preschool think I’m a slacker because I didn’t contribute to the bake sale, or just that feeling that I could do better at being a mom OR a professional if I just did one at a time. But it does not take much effort on my part to look at each of those “problems” and perform some mental adjustment that helps me realize that being a mother IS fulfilling my potential, that the stay-at-home moms could care less about what I bring or don’t bring to the bake sale, and most of all, that I am probably a better mom because I don’t try to do it all the time. I’m still not convinced that being a mom makes me a better professional (specially not the way I do it), but I could convince myself of that in time.

The messages I saw on twitter that opened my eyes were about moms who work to put food on the table, who can’t afford to stay home even if they want to, who don’t get to decide how many days a week they will ideally work, or exactly when they’d like to pursue a promotion. The complaints I noticed were about a degree of chaos and exhaustion that comes from doing it all, with minimal support, and no real reward. The women who I read about didn’t enjoy being at work, but didn’t have the flexibility to be home more and didn’t sound like they saw their kids much at all. They were doing what they had to for their family, with little personal reward. They were not what Lisa Belkin referred to as “educated professional women” who could pivot with minimal effort on how much time to work, what kind of job to do, what kind of outside assistance to engage. I realized that for many moms, work is not about identity, it’s about survival, and suddenly my issues were put into perspective.

As a friend (and fellow professional and mom) recently said to me, “these are the problems you want to have.” So, my quest to better understand the typical working mom made me realize that I have been confused about my situation. What I have are choices, and the tremendous sense of responsibility (or even self-doubt) that comes with those choices. I want to do the right thing because I can choose what to do with this embarrassment of riches. The real struggles for a woman who is giving her all to work and raise children without the benefit of graduate education, helpful networks, safety nets – these are things I can’t even talk about. My ignorance of them is too great, and tracking Twitter for days or weeks is not going to change that. There are real and documented challenges that impact professional women who have children, and I may get into that later, but for now, I will try to reflect a bit on the good fortune of having the “problems” I do.

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