A Good Mother?

A divorced mother of two young children in a demanding professional career writes of being asked how she can excel at work and still be the best mother she could be. It is a question often asked of working mothers and pre-supposes the possibility of achieving a work-life balance. This mother believes that is not possible and that the question traps mother in a cycle of shame and guilt. She acknowledges that her work is her priority.

I find this admission compelling because the myth of the work-life balance is presented so often as the solution to the stress women are experiencing as they combine work and motherhood. The implication being that there is a way to balance the dual demands without short changing either, and the failure to do so is somehow the fault of women themselves.

In a series of interviews I did with highly successful professional women, what emerged was a point of view expressed currently by the woman referred to here. The recurring theme was that their professional work was over-riding. As one mother said, she patched together any kind of child-care she could find but no matter what, would attend the necessary meeting, or fulfill any necessary professional obligation no matter the obstacle.

On the other hand, many women fit into a different category. These are women who value their work and find it fulfilling but for whom children are their priority. Perhaps these are the women who struggle most with the life-work balance issue, who forego opportunities for career advancement, and some of whom elect to stop working if financially able. They may also be in professions that do not provide opportunities for lesser commitment to work, leaving less room for choice.

Of course, for many women choice is not an issue at all, their work outside the home determined by financial need. For such women, the work-life balance is a hypothetical question as they try to manage the pressure placed by the demands of both work and family life.

Clearly there is considerable diversity in the group of women called working mothers, a diversity that is relevant in thinking about how to provide any social support system of child care. It is also relevant in thinking about what constitutes good child care and what it means to be a “good” mother.

There appears to be less confidence in the answer to these questions than was true in earlier times and perhaps it is the work/motherhood conflict that contributes to the uncertainty. A value system that once was transmitted from one generation to the next appears to have been replaced by a search for new, and more “expert” authorities, a search enhanced by technology.

An extreme example of this shift can be found in the attention given to the books of Emily Oster, a health economist at Brown University. As an economist, Oster believes in and writes about data driven evidence as an answer to child-rearing questions. Understanding what the data suggests requires that she use her skills as an academic economist to evaluate which research papers are good, which evidence is strong and drawing conclusions.

The problem is that research findings tell you about the pros and cons of a question for a group, not for a specific individual. The questions raised are best answered by a parent about her child and herself, not by data extrapolated from a large population.

Tolerating uncertainty is a major challenge of being a parent. Perhaps the added uncertainty in this era is the worry about whether a working mother is a “good” mother.

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