Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about women in the workplace.
Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of two TED Talks and three books: “Mommy Wars,” “Crazy Love,” and “The Baby Chase.” From 2006 to 2008, she wrote The Post’s “On Balance” parenting blog, and she is currently working on a book about helicopter parenting.
I’ve often laughed, raged and spit out my Diet Coke in response to advice from the media, politicians and academics about effective child-rearing tactics and how to balance work and family (as if such a state were possible). Lean in! Abandon the climb! Grow chickens in your backyard! Many of these findings, and the way they’re spun via headlines and sound bites, seem designed to maximize controversy and make mothers feel as terrible as possible. In the face of such studies (and with three kids), I’ve accumulated nearly 20 years of raw data about the truths, and the lies, of motherhood–and there’s a lot that the authorities get completely wrong:
Some experts claim you need to diagram your children’s births. Somewhat true. Fifty percent of U.S. pregnancies are accidental, and unplanned motherhood presents formidable personal and economic challenges. But raising kids is always a headlong plunge into insanity. Have babies when you want, and make your career adjust to the kids. Not vice versa.
Similarly, taking a break from work doesn’t equal career suicide. Employers aren’t dumb enough to permanently scrub talented, hardworking labor from their books, especially given that motherhood strengthens community roots, motivation and stability. Take the time you want, and can afford, to be with your children. Just keep in mind a few practicalities when you head back to work: stay in the same field and the same geographic area; make it clear you’re ready to toil like a rabid dog; know that it may not be possible to get part-time work; and don’t expect a promotion or pay increase for the years you stayed home — get ready to lean in instead.
Many people have misinterpreted Sheryl Sandberg’s iconic 2013 book encouraging women at work. Don’t twist her message into a high concept mommy myth that if women outperform their peers by being smarter, savvier and harder working, they’ll balance kids and career and get all the accolades they dreamed about in business or law school! Workplace biases against moms can be subtle, sneaky and formidable. No matter your title, make every decision as if you were your own boss. Lean in — to yourself.
And while you’re at it, there’s no need to be afraid of daycare. Past studies purported that children in daycare are more violent and antisocial, and have lower IQs. It turns out that that’s not necessarily the case. The positive peer pressure and professional expertise found in a good daycare environment are the most effective ways to teach children to nap well, stand in line, use a fork and poop somewhere besides in their own pants. The daycare-is-harmful movement is an elitist criticism that unfairly denigrates single parent, middle class and poor families, since a mom home with kids is the most expensive childcare option on the planet, and most families cannot afford for a parent to devote his or her adult professional life to unpaid child-rearing.
There are the headlines, and then there’s what other moms — and the occasional certified adviser — passed along. Here’s the advice actually helped me as a mother more than any studies ever did:
Compared to men, women have less linear careers — but they can be equally satisfying. Don’t sweat the pauses, U-turns and dead ends. Some days, you’ll want to rip your uterus out. Other days, you’ll be tempted to bomb your office. Ignore both impulses.
That said, your boss and your company matter. Often, a blah full-time job at a family-friendly company would be better than a part-time dream job in a backstabbing, overly politicized workplace.
Your partner matters. Laws protect women’s equality at work. Not at home. So choose wisely — no one can negotiate or cajole an unwilling participant into being a true partner in parenthood. Pick a mate who wants children as badly as you do (or consider donor sperm).
And then there’s “the sisterhood” — which you should cultivate. True competition among moms is rare; the only real “mommy war” is the one raging in our heads. Other women can provide invaluable solace, humor and practical help, and it’s impossible to work without childcare, which other women usually provide. When my kids were younger, I used to tremble at the possibility that my babysitter, a born-again Christian with purple hair and an unflappable demeanor, might quit. For many years, I would have been far more traumatized by her departure than by my husband’s. Other women get that motherhood is a tightrope act — thus, they get you.
It doesn’t mix with parenthood. You’ll blow deadlines, and you’ll miss a birthday or two. You’ll forget a Halloween costume the day of the school parade or overlook reading that 10th grade report card. None of this matters over the long haul. The only factors that count: Your children know you love them, your employer understands your value and you like the kind of mom you are.
Over the past two decades, I’ve seen little research that captures the crazed sitcom of modern motherhood. Beyond the old-school parenting basics — provide good nutrition, teach your kids to share and be polite, read to them every day — no data or expert can tell any woman how to be a better mother. That job, we do ourselves.
So ignore the headlines. Be the kind of mom no one else can be but you, and you’ll be happy — data be damned.
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