The Conflict Between Motherhood and Career…Still

First day of daycare for her, first day of back to work for me.

We don’t talk about this on Mother’s Day, but there has long been and continues to be–even in these supposedly enlightened and modern times–a conflict between motherhood and career, and there doesn’t have to be.  The conflict is almost always because of someone else’s judgment of how we should be as mothers or how we should be in the workplace, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

I came of age at a time when women were still expected to take either the mommy track or the career track. I did the Superwoman thing & tried to do it all and then some.  I tried to be 100% perfect in all areas and eventually had to settle for being good enough with moments of brilliance in both and moments of inescapable failure in others.

When I had my first miscarriage, I was told not to sweat it bc I “wouldn’t have made a good mom anyway.” That came from my partner, who didn’t believe I was “cut out to be a mom” because his mom had always been home and that was how he saw the world and how he saw me as a woman with a great career ahead of me.

When my eldest was still a baby, in the 90’s, I was told how surprising it was that a “career woman” could be anything other than cold to her children.  That my warmth and love for them was entirely unexpected.  In-laws actually told me that they had been concerned that I might do something terrible to my baby if she cried or was difficult–not because I had any history of violence or impatience in these matters but because I had a career and they saw that as incompatible with being a mom.   Heh.  And people wonder why I questioned my ability to be a good mom when I was told this repeatedly. It’s ludicrous now, but it was deeply hurtful  in multiple layers back then because I someone thought their beliefs were about me and not about their own worldview.

When my kids were in school & I was the only–or seemed to be–mom who wasn’t a classroom volunteer because I was working, I swallowed the constant guilt & never managed to transition to the writing job at home so I could be home when they came in from school–an unfulfilled dream that contributed to the end of my marriage. What I wanted for so long was to change careers to my first love, writing, and finish my daily page quota just in time to watch the kids walk home from their bus stop and have a snack and homework-help ready for them when they came through the front door. That dream was always “maybe 2 years from now” away, until one day, I was a single mom and knew I’d never be home for the girls after school or waiting in my car while they finished band or chorus or drama club.

But if the judgment was bad from those who thought I wasn’t enough of a mother because that wasn’t my 100% focus, it was just as bad on the others side–the people in my career field who thought I couldn’t be good at my job if I had kids and that I would certainly let my mind stray to them instead of being 100% focused on my job.

In the summer of 2000, I stood guiltily in the women’s bathroom while the GS-15-on-her-way-to-Senior-Executive-Service chastised me there for not having a “personal life compatible with your professional life so you shouldn’t expect a promotion until your kids are grown” or my parents were dead, and how she had to sacrifice sometimes by not being able to attend her niece’s events. I remember thinking, What the hell?   How does missing a niece’s birthday party compare?  I was often traveling on business three weeks out of four, and had finished a major project just in time for my dad to have heart surgery.   I took off a few days to be in the ICU with him, and the Big Boss didn’t see family obligations as compatible with my career?  She gave me this unsolicited advice both privately and publicly, in that smelly restroom and in a large conference room.  Me, I tried to be with my parents in the hospital, I tried to make time for my little girls every night and call them when I was at Grandma’s, and I tried to make sure my work at the office was done so I could get the promotion I’d been promised for years.  I failed everyone, or at least it felt that way.  No matter how much I did, it wasn’t enough.  For anyone.  When my own dog barked at me, I gave up and told my mid-level bosses to forget any promotions for me but just get me out of there and to some place where I wouldn’t be counseled in the bathroom. I gave up the upcoming promotion for another few years, and it was always questioned how serious I was about my career to have left the primo office in the land.

Fast forward to 2.5 years after my promotion and I was going through a divorce from my partner who really wanted to see me succeed in my career.  My income certainly enriched our lifestyle and took the pressure off of my man bringing home the bacon alone.  So if we were to go our separate ways, I had decisions to make.  Choices.  Between career and motherhood.   I put my career on the back burner for 7 years to take an assignment I disliked–at times hated–but didn’t have travel or overtime so I could keep custody of my kids. I watch people I trained get promoted way ahead of me.

My kids left home for college and careers, and were thankfully a day’s drive away.  I had a new dream job until my dream boss left.  I didn’t see my kids’ new homes for 18 months bc my new boss complained if I asked for a single day off and suggested my dream team and everything I’d worked for might be disbanded while I was gone. When my youngest was in a serious accident, her dad & I decided her treatment based on the lack of communication from my boss as I was sorta AWOL to be with her in the emergency room.

Does this all sound crazy, this conflict between career and motherhood?  I don’t ever recall any of these issues coming up for my kids’ dad, as he was generally applauded for his involvement in all the things I was damned for missing.  I do recall many times when he was praised for showing an interest in our kids just by meeting with a teacher or a principal…and I was condemned for missing even a single meeting. If he took the kids to one medical appointment in twenty, I heard from everyone what a good dad he was, but I was told I was a bad mom for not being at one appointment out of twenty.

For those who think you can be a mom and a –sorry for the anachronism–a “career woman,” you can…but there is a frequent conflict that results in judgment & self-judgment (aka guilt).  But it doesn’t have to be that way. They can, with some careers and with some bosses, be very compatible, and I hope for my daughters, should they choose to become mommies, that they will have less conflict in this area. There’s no reason beyond judgment why we can’t all be more supportive of one another.  Most of us, whether with or without a career, are just doing the best we can.

Key Takeaway: Although there might be judgment from others, and guilt, women can both be a mom and a “career woman”.


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