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Lean into Maternal Optimism

It's time to shift the narrative on working moms to one that is more positive.

Stigmas and preconceived notions of the challenges and difficulties faced by working mothers are abundant in today’s culture. Working mothers, or working women thinking about becoming mothers in the future, typically receive a deluge of negative messages about combining work and family, and the daunting prospect of trying to negotiate a life that includes a thriving career and a successful run at parenting can seem nearly impossible to achieve.

How will you balance the demands of work and motherhood? What will get the “short end of the stick,” and what will fall through the cracks? Will becoming a mother cause you to lose your professional identity? However, becoming a working mother can present many benefits as well, including an improved ability to deal with difficult situations at work, better collaboration and communication skills, and a contribution to a more diverse and well-rounded workforce.

Given all of this, it is crucial to counter the negative messages working mothers receive with a more nuanced look at the different possibilities available to working mothers in order to cultivate “maternal optimism.” So, how can women do that? What creates maternal optimism?

First and foremost, cultivating maternal optimism requires letting go of rigid expectations and ideas about what “should” be, and instead opening oneself up to a more flexible and open-minded life path—to expect the unexpected. We are all guilty of envisioning future scenarios in a certain specific way, and then when the situations naturally evolve differently, needing to adjust our expectations and feelings accordingly to go with the flow.

In the same way, working mothers must shift their own personal expectations and intentions to enable them to adapt their work and home lives in alignment with ever-changing schedules, needs, and demands. Although this may seem like an obvious matter, the challenge is for working mothers to see these situations and themselves in a positive light, rather than viewing themselves as having failed in some way.

Along these same lines, another important component to creating maternal optimism is letting go of that “perfect” model that mothers have in their heads of how they are going to parent as a working mother. Perhaps you imagine you will take a brief maternity leave after your baby is born and then continue on your path of progression in your career, while simultaneously attending new-mom playgroups, taking your baby to music classes, and getting plenty of exercise and eight hours of good sleep a night. Sound familiar?

As an unrealistic expectation: Yes. As a reality for working mothers: No. Letting go of the fantasy of perfection and embracing the sometimes messy and non-ideal realities of parenting and working as a working mother is essential to cultivating maternal optimism.

Piecing together your own unique path is a third strategy to creating maternal optimism. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to life as a working parent. Some mothers may think they will return to work full time following the birth of their child, and then realize they want to pursue an entirely different career path that allows for more remote work and/or a more flexible schedule.

Alternatively, some mothers believe they will want to scale back on work after the birth of their child and spend more time at home; however, after a few months of this, they may start to miss their work experiences and crave more professional, work-oriented time. Other mothers may assume they will return to their jobs and keep the status quo, but opt instead to embrace their entrepreneurial leanings and start their own business.

Again, none of these choices are right or wrong; they are unique to the needs of each individual mother. Be open to picking and choosing from various options and pathways in order to create the balance that works for you.

Building a community of support is imperative to generate a spirit of maternal optimism. These supporters can—and usually do—include spouses, extended family members, and friends. But widening that circle and harnessing even more support from other entities can boost your chances of success in harmonizing your work/life paths.

Co-workers, human resources staff, male allies at work, and other working mothers can provide feedback, encouragement, new ideas, and a fresh perspective that can help to alleviate frustrations and isolation and allow for a greater feeling of strength and support. Seek out those people who can bolster and advocate for you. The phrase “it takes a village” really is useful—so go create yours!

The final element to cultivating maternal optimism to mention is the idea of shifting the narrative away from “having it all” as defined by society, and toward allowing each working mother to decide what “having it all” means to her. Striving to be either the “ideal” mother or the “ideal” worker—or constructing an unattainable notion of how to be the ideal both—is a surefire way to eradicate any hope of maternal optimism. Setting yourself up for failure will ensure you achieve just that. Instead, shift the narrative away from gendered assumptions and impractical expectations, and listen to your internal voice and values to help guide you along your way as a working mother.

Self-forgiveness, vulnerability, and staying true to yourself will be tremendous boons to your confidence and well-being as a working mother and will sow the seeds to a healthy work-life balance. With those attributes, combined with a flexible outlook, a strong community of supporters, and an openness to piecing together your own unique path, you will be well on your way to creating a vital spirit of maternal optimism.


This post was co-authored by Danna Greenberg and Jenn Cassie


Ladge, J.J. & Greenberg, D. (2019). Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths Through Work and Motherhood. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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