Women have come a long way on their journey to equality, but social and economic landmines still litter the path of working mothers. As a successful lawyer, professor and mother of two, Lara Bazelon shares insights into the various obstacles working mothers face, every day. In addition to her own history, Bazelon presents inspiring stories of ordinary women overcoming the biased demands made of working mothers. Offering thoughts on family planning and strategies for coping with work–life imbalances, this intelligent text presents a compelling argument for ambitious self-fulfillment.
- To achieve real work–life balance – and financial independence – mothers should prioritize their professional ambitions, not just family life.
- Often, you can’t control when to start a family; but you can choose what kind of partner and professional you want to be.
- The cult of motherhood causes tremendous pressure, conflict and guilt for working women.
- Despite women’s professional empowerment, they’re still responsible for most household chores and child care.
- Women must own, not downplay, their professional ambitions.
- You can love your child and love your work too.
- Achieving career parity in marriage requires a revamping of traditional notions about gender and parenting.
- Lean in to the realities of work–life imbalance.
- Studies confirm children of working mothers will do fine later in life.
To achieve real work–life balance – and financial independence – mothers should prioritize their professional ambitions, not just family life.
Author Lara Bazelon knows all too well what it means to be a working mother. She’s a law professor and mother of two, and her mother was a doctor. As a child, Bazelon was keenly aware that her mother, who earned her medical degree in the early 1970s, was different from the other kids’ moms, none of whom worked outside the home.
Although both of Bazelon’s parents worked long hours, only her mother was expected to cook, clean and care for Lara and her three sisters. Her father, a high-powered lawyer, often traveled for work, sometimes for long stretches; but her mother rarely left home for business. Dr. Bazelon accepted these gendered inequities, even though they exhausted her and limited her professional opportunities.
“My mother had to treat the domestic sphere as a second job – and that meant that she worked very hard and seemingly nonstop.”
While proud of her mother’s accomplishments, Bazelon made a conscious decision not to follow completely in her footsteps. Instead, she chose to keep her legal career on track throughout her children’s lives. Bazelon did heed one piece of her mother’s advice, however: “Never be at the financial mercy of someone else.”
Often, you can’t control when to start a family; but you can choose what kind of partner and professional you want to be.
Financial security, career opportunities, independence and romantic partnerships all figure into the “when to have kids” debate. Many women now choose to marry at a later age than in previous decades, because they want to establish their careers first, pay off their student debt and enjoy their independence. But working women often feel anxious to find a partner by a certain age – and the biological “ticking clock” remains a genuine concern for many women.
The media has put additional pressure on these women by warning against waiting too long to start a family. However, the studies that first sounded the alarm about age and fertility have proved limited and misleading. In fact, women in their late 30s and early 40s are giving birth at robust rates.
“The debates about the optimal time for women to get married, get pregnant and have a baby while creating the minimum possible career disruption create a lot of heat and little light.”
Often, you can’t predict or control when you get married or become pregnant, but you can choose what kind of partner and professional you want to be. Society often expects working women – but not their male partners – to make career concessions to accommodate parenthood. Happy marriages with kids, however, depend on both parents committing equally to the duties of child-rearing. Bazelon admits that, despite the commitment she made to herself to pursue a lofty legal career, she got married without ensuring her husband, Matt, would support her goal by sharing domestic responsibilities equally.
The cult of motherhood causes tremendous pressure, conflict and guilt for working women.
Unlike in Dr. Bazelon’s era, today’s society encourages young women to pursue college, establish a career, work hard and have a family. At the same time, working mothers are supposed to always make parenting their top priority and view their parenting role as more vital than their professional role. Unfortunately, this “having it all” philosophy puts tremendous pressure on working women to exalt motherhood to an untenable degree.
As sociologist Sharon Hays has noted, the “intensive mothering” ideal forces working women to attempt the impossible: to be the family’s primary caregiver and also maintain an all-absorbing focus on their children.
“Many new mothers experience a constant tension between what the world expects of them and what they want for themselves.”
As a young mother, Bazelon felt guilty about leaving her children in the care of others so she could work. She accepted the conventional wisdom that kids did best when their mothers stayed at home. According to a 2018 global study, however, children of stay-at-home mothers fare no better than children of working mothers. In fact, some experts suggest children of working mothers do better in life because they learn early on that their needs won’t always come first.
Despite women’s professional empowerment, they’re still responsible for most household chores and child care.
As a child, Bazelon happily absorbed the “Free to Be…You and Me” philosophy promoted in singer Marlo Thomas’s album of the same name. Working women, and feminists particularly, identified with that album. Although Bazelon’s parents endorsed feminism in theory, in practice, household responsibilities still fell entirely on her mother. This arrangement allowed her often-absent father to be the “fun parent” when at home, while her mother became the dreaded enforcer parent.
According to a 2020 study, women spend about two hours more per day doing household chores and minding the children than their male partners. Frequently, these domestic duties force women to cut back on their work schedules or to pass up promotions and other opportunities, resulting in a lifetime of decreased earning.
“We can hand our male partners an apron, a crying baby or a shopping list knowing that they are not doing us a favor; they are doing their part.”
Today, men help more with chores and child care than before, but gender biases persist, and progress is slow. Major improvements will require increased government support for parents and changes in attitude on the part of both men and women. Men need to step up, and women need to let go.
Women must own, not downplay, their professional ambitions.
Many working women are reluctant to call themselves ambitious, as they associate ambition with being pushy, strident and cold. They understand that while society celebrates ambitious men, people tend to see ambitious women – particularly working mothers – as calculating, aggressive, arrogant and unfeminine. While men boast about their accomplishments, women humble-brag about theirs.
Ambitious mothers receive the harshest criticism of all, as many people view being a professional and being a parent as two competing, not complementary, things. To counter this criticism, many successful mothers, including Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, often downplay their careers and reflexively define themselves as being mothers first.
“Instinctive self-diminishment isn’t a biologically determined female trait; it is a learned and rewarded behavior.”
All this head-hanging works against women’s chances of achieving full equality at home and in the workplace. Until more women, especially high-profile, influential women, take full ownership of their talents and career accomplishments, aspirations like equal pay for equal work will remain elusive.
You can love your child and love your work too.
Many new mothers return reluctantly to work, and some don’t have a choice but to go back to work as soon as possible after childbirth. Still others, like Bazelon, look forward to resuming their career. Depending on the circumstances, what feels right for one new mother might not be appropriate for another. For new mothers who love their job, the road back to their career is often fraught with emotion.
“When new mothers return to work, they are often made to feel that they are harming their children and compared unfavorably with images of self-sacrificing, child-first supermoms.”
In grappling with the “back to work” decision, women must deal with both society’s motherhood biases – including the belief that only the mother’s care can ensure a child’s healthy development – and their own self-inflicted guilt. Despite studies showing young kids do fine in all sorts of caregiving setups, the pressure to delay going back to work or to quit altogether remains strong. Fathers, of course, rarely face these tough choices.
When her children were young, Bazelon experienced the challenges of being a job-loving mom while working on a multiyear wrongful-conviction case that required her to leave home four days a week. Bazelon took pride in her life-changing fight for justice, but she also, painfully, had to come to understand the emotional toll her dedication had taken on her family.
Achieving career parity in marriage requires a revamping of traditional notions about gender and parenting.
In the aftermath of her wrongful-conviction case, Bazelon’s relationship with her kids took a hit, and her marriage collapsed. Irreconcilable views regarding her role in the family finally led to divorce. During the breakup, Bazelon had an epiphany: The parent she most resembled was not her self-sacrificing mother – the type of woman Matt wanted her to be – but her unapologetically ambitious father.
“In heterosexual relationships, a nongendered view of parenting allows mothers the freedom to reimagine their role without fear of judgment or recrimination from their male partners.”
Achieving career and parenting parity in romantic relationships requires a revamping of traditional notions about gender and an acceptance of the following truths:
- Working women contribute to a family’s economic well-being.
- To be happy, mothers need to feel supported in their choice to work.
- Working women who have a support system are happier and thus make better mothers.
- Successful working mothers provide kids with positive role models.
- Families benefit when parents share domestic tasks equally: Mothers suffer less exhaustion and resentment, and kids learn lessons in responsibility.
When couples free themselves from outdated perspectives and commit to a fairer, more sustainable marriage model – before they become parents – their families can flourish.
Lean in to the realities of work–life imbalance.
For decades, experts have told people the secret to a happy life is work–life balance. But the notion that work and life are competing entities and that a “balancing” of the two is both possible and beneficial defies common sense. When this myth combines with biases about motherhood, the situation becomes onerous for working mothers.
“Success at work and success at motherhood are not mutually exclusive or even complementary. They are dual, mutually reinforcing strengths.”
In reality, modern life is naturally imbalanced. Sometimes work will dominate – for example, when a businesswoman works overtime to launch a new company. Eventually, the work–life pendulum will swing back to the family.
Sometimes happiness requires a fearless embrace of imbalance. After her divorce, Bazelon went all-in on a pledge she’d made to herself: to become a tenured law professor. Knowing the position would pay off in terms of job security and a flexible schedule, she put in long hours away from home. Pursuing her goal created a work–life imbalance, but achieving it resulted in a long-term swing back to her kids.
Studies confirm children of working mothers will do fine later in life.
As noted in a 2018 study, adult daughters of working mothers are likely to earn higher salaries and hold more supervisory positions compared to adult daughters of stay-at-home mothers. Adult sons of working mothers tend to spend more time on caregiving and domestic duties than the sons of stay-at-home mothers. Another study found that although the daughters of working and nonworking mothers were equally happy and successful, daughters of working mothers were more likely to credit their mothers for teaching them independence.
According to a 2014 study, the children of stay-at-home mothers spent more time with their mothers than the children of working mothers did, but the amount of time they spent on structured educational activities – that is, quality time – was equal.
“Being ambitious and seeking fulfillment at work are not antithetical to good parenting – we know that because society rewards these qualities when fathers exhibit them.”
Both formal and anecdotal findings refute the dogma often lobbed against working mothers: that working outside the home is detrimental to children. Ambition and a focus on career aren’t antithetical to good parenting. As Bazelon discovered with her own kids, when all is said and done, the children of working mothers are doing all right.
About the Author
Lara Bazelon is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she directs the criminal and racial justice programs and holds the Barnett Chair in Trial Advocacy.
Lara Bazelon’s “Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids” is a thought-provoking and empowering book that challenges prevailing societal norms and sheds light on the benefits of ambitious and career-oriented mothers. With a focus on debunking the myth that successful mothers are detrimental to their children’s well-being, Bazelon presents a compelling argument for why mothers should pursue their professional aspirations without guilt.
Bazelon begins the book by addressing the prevalent cultural expectations placed on mothers and the pressures they face to prioritize their children’s needs above all else. She highlights the societal biases that often discourage mothers from pursuing ambitious careers and the guilt they experience when attempting to balance work and family life. Drawing from her personal experiences as a working mother and extensive research, Bazelon dismantles the notion that ambitious mothers are neglectful or selfish.
One of the book’s key strengths lies in the author’s skillful integration of personal anecdotes, interviews, and research studies. Bazelon shares her own struggles and triumphs as a working mother, providing relatable insights that resonate with readers. Additionally, she includes interviews with other ambitious mothers from diverse backgrounds, adding depth and authenticity to the narrative.
Throughout the book, Bazelon presents a wealth of research that supports her argument. She explores studies that challenge the conventional wisdom suggesting that children are negatively affected by their mothers’ career pursuits. By presenting evidence that counters these assumptions, she encourages readers to critically examine societal norms and preconceptions.
Bazelon also delves into the long-term benefits that ambitious mothers bring to their children’s lives. She argues that ambitious mothers serve as role models, inspiring their children to pursue their own aspirations and teaching them important life skills such as resilience, independence, and adaptability. The author’s insights are both inspiring and empowering, providing a refreshing perspective on the positive influence ambitious mothers can have on their families.
Furthermore, “Ambitious Like a Mother” addresses the systemic barriers faced by mothers in the workforce, such as gender inequality, pay gaps, and lack of support structures. Bazelon advocates for policy changes and societal shifts that can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for working mothers. Her call to action adds depth to the book, encouraging readers to reflect on the broader implications and work towards positive change.
In terms of writing style, Bazelon’s prose is engaging and accessible. She strikes a balance between personal anecdotes and research-based evidence, making the book relatable and informative. The chapters flow smoothly, and the book maintains a consistent pace, keeping readers engaged from start to finish.
While “Ambitious Like a Mother” offers a strong argument and a wealth of supporting evidence, it could benefit from providing a more comprehensive exploration of the challenges faced by mothers from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the author touches on the struggles of working-class mothers, a deeper examination of their experiences would have added further depth and nuance to the book’s central theme.
In conclusion, “Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids” is a compelling and empowering read for both working mothers and anyone interested in understanding the complexities of motherhood and ambition. Lara Bazelon presents a well-reasoned argument, supported by personal experiences and extensive research. By challenging societal norms and advocating for change, Bazelon encourages readers to embrace their ambitions without guilt while highlighting the positive impact it can have on their children’s lives.