Julie always expected she’d quit her job as a technical recruiter as soon as she and her husband, Billy, had kids. Her mom had been a stay-at-home, and so were most of her friends. But once their first child, Mia, was born, Julie began to rethink the notion. Mia was fussy. She needed almost constant attention. Billy didn’t pitch in much during the week; he was up early and came home late. His schedule had always been that way, but Julie, exhausted and a bit lonely, began to resent him—and, in the darker moments, Mia, as well. In those early months of maternity leave, Julie found herself dreaming of the day she, too, could get out of the house and go back to work. But she was torn: “I couldn’t figure out if I was running away, or honoring myself. Or both,” she told me. At the same time, she blamed herself for not instantly loving all parts of motherhood, and, she said, “for not just being grateful that we could afford to ‘let’ me stay home.”
The notion of the “working mom” is always a hot button topic—for mothers and others—and the current discourse is no different, rife with varying opinions, inner conflicts, self-induced guilt, and, inevitably, much judgment. The term “working mother” itself carries a sniff of disapproval and feint praise—no one debates the notion of the “working father,” after all. Women tend to feel scrutinized no matter what they choose, and often depending on whom their friends are—and what decisions those friends make for themselves. It’s become a political issue, with some Republicans arguing that only poor moms should work, and some Democrats arguing that wealthy moms who choose to stay home with their kids are self-indulgent. Pop culture is similarly divided: In her much-discussed book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes that women can “have it all,” though not long before, Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in The Atlantic, argued the exact opposite.
Of course, whether or not to pursue a career, or hold a job outside of the home, is a very personal and entirely individual decision that depends on many, many factors. But so much of the advice geared towards women who choose to go back to work, including Sandberg’s, focuses on how they can learn to accept the sacrifices, some bigger than others, that necessarily go along with working while raising children. Instead, I’d argue that in many cases, going back to work is not a sacrifice at all but the best decision a woman can make not only for herself, but also for her family.
Like in Julie’s case. Though she always imagined that she’d be content with days spent entertaining and teaching kids, driving them to activities and play dates and, most importantly, simply watching them grow, she realized that she felt she’d lost a great sense of who she was in completely abandoning the side of her that had worked so hard for so long. And that just because she could stay home didn’t mean she should. “I began to miss the satisfaction that earning, and achieving, gave me,” she said. “Of course, raising a child was incredibly satisfying, too. But it didn’t satisfy all of me.” This is common, especially as more and more working women take on leadership roles and positions of great power. Those who spent years fighting to achieve workplace equality often find that forgoing career for motherhood can feel like a personal betrayal.
Or, at least, a life they wouldn’t necessarily want for their own daughters. Sara, a mother of two children under 6, left her job as an editor at a New York publishing house to stay home with the children. She loved her new life, having so much quality time with her children, being their greatest influence. “Until the day when my older daughter came home from kindergarten with a drawing of what she wanted to be when she grew up,” said Sara. “And it was me—a mother. She wanted to be a mom. I wasn’t touched—I was humiliated. ‘That’s not all I am,’ I wanted to tell her. But more, I just desperately wanted ‘more’ for her. I was like, ‘I’m not sacrificing my career to be the perfect mother so that you can grow up and stay home!’ And yet that’s exactly what I had done.” A year later, she went back to work.
That’s not at all to say that stay-at-home moms can’t, or shouldn’t, be role models for their daughters and sons. But while many opponents to working motherhood argue that working moms miss out on much of the opportunity to shape and influence their children, many working mothers know that their personal achievements of any kind—from schooling to the workplace—will help rather than hinder their kids. Mothers who pursue professional and personal achievements teach their children the value of independence, perseverance, having a strong work ethic, and doing something you love. These mothers also understand that no parent—be it mom or dad—should be all things at all times to his or her child (in fact, even mothers who stay home should actively seek out other role models for their children).
Going back to work post-baby is also, for many, a matter of health. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looking at more than 1300 mothers across the U.S. found that working mothers reported fewer symptoms of depression and were more likely to rate their health “excellent” as compared with non-employed mothers. In this same study, working mothers also reported being just as involved in their child’s schooling as stay-at-home moms, while those who worked part-time provided more learning opportunities for their toddlers than those who didn’t work at all. The lesson? The kids will be all right—maybe even better—when mom puts herself if not first, then pretty close to the top of the priority list.
And let’s not forget fathers’ contributions to parenting. The number of stay-at-home dads—about 154,000, according to the 2010 Census—is on the rise, with an estimated 16% of preschoolers being cared for by Dad while Mom is at work. So is the number of female breadwinners, according to the Pew Research Center. Studies show that this new generation of dads views family as the center of their lives—and that’s a very good thing. At the very least, it means that the discourse is about to change. And that if we’re going to talk about working mothers, we’ll soon be talking about working fathers, too. It’s about time.
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