Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

High Octane Women

Motherhood versus Career: The Epic Battle that Need Not Be

Good News for Guilt-Ridden Career Moms

Posted Nov 29, 2011

If you're a working mother like me, you may have noticed a few raised eyebrows from time to time. I was only five weeks postpartum when I had to go back to my work as an OB/GYN physician, and you'd have thought I had murdered my infant the way some women looked at me. This opening to fellow PT blogger Dr. Lissa Rankin's article, Do Working Moms Raise Healthier Kids? is a perfect example of one of several classic double binds society places on today's women ...

motherhood versus career.

It's the quintessential double bind that sets the stage for the epic battle so many women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have waged, mostly against themselves. While most of society no longer has a problem with women who pursue a career, having a career doesn't relieve women of what many still see as women's societal "obligations" to take care of their home and to bear and raise children. There are so many things wrong with these perceptions that it's hard to know where to begin, but I'll start with taking care of the home and family. 

Domestic responsibilities, such as taking care of their households and maintaining their relationships with family, children, and significant others, typically don't lessen for women who work outside the home. A National Parenting Association survey found that successful working women are much more likely to assume primary responsibility for their homes and children than their husbands or partners. The survey found that fifty percent of successful married women are primarily responsible for meal preparation (compared to only nine percent of their husbands), and fifty-one percent take time off from work to care for a sick child (compared to only nine percent of their husbands). Career women also contribute an average of eleven hours a week to managing and executing household chores and responsibilities, which constitutes sixty-one percent of the total time spent on these weekly chores in their homes.1 And when you're working crazy hours already, which is the norm for many workers these days, eleven hours of extra work time is not easy to find (meaning less sleep and down time).

Another challenge today's women face under the scrutiny of societal biases relates to having children. Although women have the right to choose or not choose to have children, for many women who choose not, there's a backlash, and it's typically not from one source, but from many--family, friends, the constant influx of images of the millions of women who choose to have children.

Moreover, rather than seeing the choice to not have children as a personal, private decision, it's often viewed by society as inextricably linked to a woman's career, triggering a barrage of epithets such as "selfish," "power hungry," "greedy," and self-centered." And even for those who follow the "sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me" philosophy of life, actions often speak louder than words. There are the looks, the gestures, the unintelligible whispers at weddings and family get-togethers. There' are the awkward moments at your niece's school play when you're asked by the horde of proud smiling moms about your children. But regardless of the source, the disapproving undertones generated by the choice to not have children serve as a constant reminder to these women that the path they've chosen goes against society's expectations.

Knowing this, you might think that choosing to have children would at least remove some of this pressure, but for many career-minded women, the stress remains. It's just different. Much of the stress is because there simply aren't enough hours in the day to devote to "getting a life" when you don't really have one outside of work (often by necessity rather than by choice). Many women who want children don't want to raise them alone. Yet, finding a partner and being able to devote enough time to making the relationship work can be a challenge, especially with longer work hours becoming the norm in today's uncertain job market. Absent artificial insemination (which some women do choose), it's difficult to have children without a partner, and apparently, many who want children aren't getting them.

The National Parenting Association survey found that although eighty-six percent of women graduating from college reported that they wanted to have children, close to half of them turned out to be childless by age forty. Compare these figures to the seventy-nine percent of men in the survey who indicated they wanted children and the seventy-five percent who later had children, and it becomes rather obvious that while career men don't generally experience a gap between what they want and what they get (at least with respect to children), career women do. And with the incessant ticking of those biological clocks, knowing that with each tick their chances are less and less for conceiving, women can feel an enormous amount of stress added to their lives.

Of course, having children doesn't remove stress. In fact, it often increases it. Juggling a career and children at the same time is one of the most difficult balancing acts a woman will ever perform. And as if that's not bad enough, society once again only makes it worse with the classic double bind of good moms/bad moms: good moms raise their children themselves; bad moms go to work and leave others to do it. This feeds directly into the guilt many career mothers feel about holding a job, regardless of whether that job is a financial necessity, a dream fulfilled, or both.

This leads many women who work outside the home to feel trapped in an impossible catch-22. Although they may enjoy the independence and sense of accomplishment a job can provide, they feel guilty for leaving their children in the care of someone else during the work day. The same guilt is often experienced by former stay-at-home moms who find themselves back in the workforce not by choice, but because their partner was laid-off or because their family needs a second income to financially survive. And, of course, single career moms often have no choice at all in the matter. Although they may enjoy their job, they often must work in order to survive and support their family.

At the crux of the stress career mothers face is an underlying question which has sparked a highly charged and ongoing social debate: Do children raised by stay-at-home moms "do better" than children who receive some form of child care while their moms work outside the home?

Of course, the first problem is the flaw in the question itself. Do better at what? Do children in child care "do better" with sharing? Do they do better academically? But putting this deficiency aside, many career moms worry, mostly because of inaccurate assumptions gleaned from untested societal biases, that their children are at a disadvantage by being in child care. Fortunately, the data does not bear this out.

In addition to the recent longitudinal study cited by Dr. Rankin, the results of a study fifteen years in the making suggest that all the worry and stress often experienced by career mothers is for naught. The study, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), followed over 1000 American children over a fifteen year period, beginning at one month of age, and found that children who experienced 100 percent maternal care (no outside child care) didn't fare any better than children who received non-maternal care, including all forms of care-center-based child care, family-based child care, relatives, and babysitters.2 This held true even for those children who started day care as infants (before twelve months of age). In fact, children who spent time in high-quality child care showed higher cognitive and language skills and better school readiness scores than other children, including those with stay-at-home mothers.

One negative that came out of the study was that a small percentage of the children who spent long hours in child care centers had more behavioral problems, such as fighting and temper tantrums. However, these "problems" were considered normal by the researchers, were not severe, were temporary, and usually disappeared between third and fifth grade. The other "not-so-good" news, not surprisingly, is that children in child care settings are more like to get ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and stomach problems. But as a whole, the results are good news for career mothers who are stressing out over leaving their children with someone else while they work.

Also important for guilt-ridden career moms to know is that family features, such as parents' educational levels, family income, a two-parent home environment, the mother's sensitivity and psychological adjustment, and the social and cognitive quality of the home environment, are more strongly and more consistently associated with children's development than whether or not their children attend child care. 

So what's the moral of the career mother bind story? Quality is more important than quantity. In fact, the guilt (i.e., stress) you experience over working is likely to have more negative effects on you and your children than working itself. So stop stressing and allow yourself to enjoy both the time that you spend at work and the time that you spend with your children.3


1 Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Norma Vite-Leon, High-Achieving Women, 2001 (New York: National Parenting Association, 2002).

2 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, "Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development," (accessed March 21, 2010).

3 Content of this article was taken from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2010).

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011). 

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