Working Moms, Don’t Use That Harvard Study To Validate You!

Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network event - NYC

We don’t need to wrap ourselves in the banner of carefully constructed, peer–reviewed articles in academic journals in order to assert that, really, our work lives are absolutely fine, both for ourselves and for our kids.

LONDON – Like many out there, I was overjoyed to read the results of a recent study from Harvard University claiming that being a working mother  has tangible benefits to our kids. More specifically, the new research showed that working mothers are good role models for their daughters.

I was on my way to work when I read about the study and entered the office with an extra skip in my step. One of my colleagues, also a mother of two, called out to me before I even got to my desk. “Did you hear?” she said. “Work is actually good for our daughters!” She was positively beaming.

“Yup!” I replied triumphantly. “Already tweeted it!”

We high-fived each other across the cubicle, leaning in (to borrow a phrase) to the nine hour day that lay ahead, a tad less anxious than we’d been the day before and – in my own case – suddenly awash in confidence that missing my daughter’s cross country tournament the week before hadn’t permanently damaged her self-esteem. To the contrary, now she’d be even more confident and motivated because she had me as a model, holed up in an office miles away, toiling away on that final edit to the paper whose deadline took greater precedence over watching her run a race.

Continuing to ride that high, I immediately jumped on Facebook to contact a friend of mine who teaches family and child policy at a prominent American university and is up on all of this research. “Isn’t this great?” I wrote, linking to the study on her Wall. “Because didn’t most of the earlier studies say the opposite? And P.S., Yay!”

Actually,” she wrote back,”this body of research is so hard to interpret because so little of it is well-identified and there are so few plausibly causal estimates. Mostly people seem to conclude what they want from the existing literature. Thus, YAY! indeed for this latest study.

Fffffffffffffttttttttttttttt.

That’s the sound of the air coming out of my Guilt-Free-Mom balloon upon receiving her dispiriting reply. Not one hour after I’d just come to the conclusion that my 45 (when I’m lucky) hour a week workweek was not a problem for the two kids I’ve raised over the past 14 and a half years, my hopes were once again dashed.

Oh well. That was nice while it lasted, I thought to myself.

Which gets to the nub of the problem, doesn’t it? We – all of us, but perhaps especially we moms who’ve been deemed the “designated worriers” in our families  – desperately crave external validation for the choices we’ve made – (or, in most cases, have no choice but to make)  – as parents. It’s not enough to reassure one another verbally about the whole juggling act and to share that private wink at the playground that as the others head off for coffee, we’ve got that bacon to bring home.

No, we need to wrap ourselves in the banner of carefully constructed, peer–reviewed articles in academic journals in order to assert that, really, our work lives are absolutely fine, both for ourselves and for our kids. Nor is this need for validation unique to working moms. As Gaby Hinsliff correctly observed in The Guardian following this very same study, all mothers feel guilty about what they’re doing – or not doing – with their time whether they work full time at home, full time out of the home or that mythical perfect lifestyle, the part-time working parent. Guilt is part and parcel of the package of being a mom (guilt that she, at any rate, happens to find useful).

I myself had occasion to revisit all of these issues in my own life when I went back and read a blog post I wrote five or six years ago for the New York Times, back when I worked part time as an online journalist and was also the principle care-taker for my kids. In that post, I reflect upon the horror of discovering that my then five-year-old daughter saw me as the “main person in the family” (end quote), which my insecure, part-time working mom psyche chose to interpret as a major professional failure – both  for myself – and for her, by denying her (ha!) a suitable role model.

Re-reading that post this past week felt like I was reading about someone else’s life.  Sure, I vaguely remember what it was like when I rushed to conduct interviews and write articles and hit deadlines in between the seemingly endless tide of pick ups and drop offs and school concerts and ballet practices, and to feel sickened that I wasn’t achieving more professionally.

These  days, my 11-year-old mostly does her 45 minute Tube commute to school on her own. She texts me at the office when she gets to the library after school (where she goes on her own, by bus) and I blithely assume that if there’s a problem, I’ll hear about it from someone before I meet her after swim practice at 7:15 each night. Do I feel guilty that much of my parenting during the week these days is done remotely, via a cell phone? You bet I do. Pretty much every day.

So what’s the moral of the story here, ladies? I think it’s time for all of us to try and consciously ban ourselves  from relying on external props – like high-falutin, meticulously executed research, even from Harvard – to justify the different, always difficult choices we make throughout our lives about work and about life to weave these two, often conflictual threads together. Let’s try to have a little more self-confidence and security in our identities and accept that there are always trade-offs to that whole work/life thang, and that most of us are simply doing the best we can.

Easier said than done, I realize. But boy, would that be a good role model for our girls.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.

Image: Women in the Workforce via Wikipedia.com

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