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Tovah Klein, Ph.D.
Tovah P Klein Ph.D.

Working Mothers, Raising Children: Something’s Gotta Give

Viewing lives as mothers and professionals over longer periods is good for kids

Children thrive in nurturing relationships with parents. From the parent view, raising children can be hard. So is building a career. Children and careers often collide given the overlap of child bearing and career setting years. Decades of attachment and developmental research and newer neuroscience findings firmly establish that a child’s early years form a lifelong base. First relationships with parents and caregivers are foundational.

These years matter for another reason. Professional careers are frontloaded- climb the ladder early to make law partner, gain tenure, earn key journalist roles, or become division heads. Much discussion focuses on whether women can and should do it all- working, mothering, balancing. The issue hit me head-on (again!) last week as I was leaving to give a talk for my new book. My youngest declared, “My stomach hurts.” Every working parent encounters this. Start the checklist: Sick? How sick? Can he go to school? What coverage do we have? The dilemmas of working and parenthood.

They start the moment we become mothers- identities formed through careers are forced to incorporate the new role of ‘mommy’. Identity-turmoil gets sparked; Am I a career woman? ambitious person? mother? This can be followed by a path of ‘Who am I?’ that can take years to resolve. Mothers of young children frequently consult me about going back to work. Will it hurt my child? they want to know. Many issues are wrapped up in this inquiry, about the needs of children, of women and families, about societal expectations and workplace realities.

Mothers have always worked outside the home. What is new is a changing context. Increased opportunities, expectations have evolved and women now participate in many professions. Much has not changed. Glass ceilings remain un-shattered; women lag behind men on most work indicators, from salary to leadership.

What are the realities of mothers and work? And the million dollar questions--- can women do it all? Find ‘balance’? Fulfillment? Will children be ‘neglected’? At least that’s how it’s framed- as simple yes/no issues. In a qualitative study we are conducting of over 240 mothers who had careers prior to becoming mothers, the resounding message is that they feel they are not doing enough- for their careers (whether currently employed or not) or their children and are torn between the clashing domains. They desire flexibility, and feel pushed to make decisions that might compromise their careers in order to meet their children’s needs at a young age (under 4). They struggle to do-it-all at one moment. Even though many desire to. In fact, by most objective measures these women are succeeding, but they don't feel they are.

Our study demographics mirror national trends where 65% of mothers with children under age 6 work outside the home increasing to 75% for children over age 6. The emerging theme our study participants highlight is that balance is a fallacy no matter how much effort gets exerted. A 2013 Pew Study found over half the working mothers felt juggling work and family was difficult to do. One of our study mothers climbing a career ladder summed it up:

“…this whole myth that you can have a job, a deep relationship with your children, and a great relationship with your partner—that you can have all of that stuff, which they’ve been telling women since the 70s, it’s just bull. Completely not true. Something has to give.

The notion that women can have careers while making family life their top priority reflects conflicting notions of ideal motherhood- devotion to children and personally fulfilling career goals. On the one hand, working mothers are criticized for neglecting their children (working is seen as ‘not devoted’ to children). I know of no studies showing mothers’ work as harmful to children’s well being. To the contrary, studies suggest women who work and fulfill personal aspirations are more psychologically equipped for parenting (Dillaway & Pare, 2008). The 2013 Pew study found 78% of working mothers gave themselves high ratings in their role as mothers compared to 66% of non-working mothers. These dueling constructions- risk of neglecting children versus aspiring for career success- result in the “superwoman” image, which can take women down a path of steering for perfection, where they are expected and expect to ‘do (and have)- it-all’.

Careers help establish identities and fulfillment. Motherhood presents a conflict between roles as nurturer and professional. Is there a solution? Yes. Doing-it-all does not have to mean all at once. We live longer than ever. Envisioning lives over extended periods means seeing career paths differently. The early years of parenting are vital, profoundly impacting children’s psychosocial and emotional development through the earliest relationships and caretaking (Sroufe, 2005). That takes time, energy and attention. Career productivity may take a temporary step back and flourish over time, as children get older.

This longer-term view of women’s lives requires systemic changes, including parental leave policies and flexible career advancement timelines. With this perspective, professionally minded women could feel a renewed sense of “having it all”, maybe not in one year but over time. For now, something has to give.

Dillaway, H. & Pare, E. (2008) Locating mothers: How cultural debates about stay-at-home versus working mothers define women and home. Journal of Family Issues, 29(4), 437-464.

Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood, Attachment and Human Development, 7, 349-367.

About the Author
Tovah Klein, Ph.D.

Tovah Klein, Ph.D., is the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and an Associate Professor of Psychology.