While mothers today are more likely than ever are to be working, some young women still worry that having children will make it difficult for them to fulfill their career aspirations. Unfortunately that idea can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But with a few mindset shifts you can find fulfillment without losing your sanity.
It’s worth noting that no one ever asks if it’s possible to have a great career and be a great dad, because having a great career is considered part of being a great dad. I bring this up not to bash men — I know many dads who struggle to find balance, too. But I think it’s worth remembering that the cultural frame can be constrained.
The first unhelpful cultural frame involves what a “great career” means. If you think it means working 24/7 then it might be difficult to sustain that and have a great family life (or, I’d suggest, a great life at all). But if you reframe a “great career” as one where you have an impact, do work that matters, focus on results and have fun, that is all achievable while having a rich personal life, too. If you can, try practicing what that might look like before you have kids. What does it feel like to put some boundaries around your work? How much more can you accomplish if you focus on leaving the office at a reasonable hour? What if you reformulated your to-do list to focus on the work that matters, allowing the busy work to happen in the margins or disappear altogether?
The second unhelpful cultural frame is the definition of “great mom.” We have entered a time of unprecedented pressure on parents, especially mothers, to be actively engaged in parenting nearly around the clock. There is very little evidence to support the notion that this extreme level of parental activity improves children’s outcomes. Actually, there’s evidence to suggest just the opposite: that “helicopter” parenting increases anxiety and decreases resiliency. Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that lack of involvement by dad can adversely affect children and yet this topic gets relatively little attention. So what if you could redefine what it means to be a great mom. What if, for example, part of the definition was giving your partner space to be a great dad? (I’ve put a heteronormative frame on that because, unfortunately, gender norms are most acute in heterosexual two-parent families. Gay families should support each other in parental involvement too!)
And then what if your definition of being a great mom meant enjoying the time you spend with your kids, engaging with them in activities that expand their minds and yours, and creates rich and warm memories for the whole family? Those goals are compatible with also having a career. What choices would you make if those were your goals? For me, personally, I focus on family dinners, planning great weekends and spending time talking about what we have done and what we are planning to do — which reinforces the good memories and creates anticipation for fun times ahead. On the other hand, I don’t sign my kids up for extracurricular activities. My kids aren’t interested and I’m not interested in forcing them be interested. If my kids loved soccer, that would be great. But dragging them to practices and games sounds like a recipe for a poor quality, unhappy weekend. I don’t worry that my children will somehow end up thwarted because they didn’t have the quintessentially American experience of playing second grade soccer. They get plenty of other amazing experiences that we all enjoy as a family.