How Do We Define Ambition for Parents?

Experts say it’s time to reframe what ambition looks like for caregivers, no matter what you do for a living.

By Cassie Shortsleeve 

About three-and-a-half years ago, I was sitting on my couch as a new mom to a one-month-old and a self-employed journalist for the better part of my adult life, and I sent my sister a text: My career is over.

I was all of the things that many new moms in this country are—sleep-deprived, shocked, confused, overwhelmed, and without any paid leave (though I had the support structure of savings, plus my husband’s salary, which many parents in this country do not). 

Like many people of childbearing age in the U.S., I spent almost a decade building my career. The U.S. offers minimal to no support structures for parents, including no federal paid leave, no affordable and accessible child care for all, no guarantee of paid sick leave for dependent care coverage, and woefully inadequate support for mothers. I was grappling with how the U.S. could possibly leave many caregivers so unsupported, forced to reconcile with work deadlines mere weeks after having a baby all the while trying to raise a newborn.

How does it work? When do you sleep? How is there time?

As parents, we’ve heard that we can’t have it all. Then we heard we could, but just not all at the same time. We were told to lean in. Then we were told to stop and embrace a softer, slower life. All these buzz terms are seeped into how we value ourselves in a capitalistic society. Experts say it’s time we reframe success and ambition, and go back to the basics so we can feel healthier and more accomplished, no matter what we do for a living.

Ambition and the Working Parent

If you look up the definition of ambition in the dictionary, you’ll find that it is all about desire and hard work: “A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”

At its heart, ambition is about desire and determination. “There’s personal subjectivity there,” says Tanya Cotler, Ph.D. an adult and child clinical psychologist based in Toronto. 

Ambition is about the goals you’re reaching toward and the things you hold as valuable, important, and meaningful, explains Sophie Brock, Ph.D., a motherhood studies sociologist. Your ambition looks different from your best friend’s, whose ambition looks different from your coworker’s. Our metrics for ambition are often conditioned by what we know from work or school. But frequently, ambition clashes with societal expectations of what it means to be a parent, worker, and, more broadly, a “successful” adult, says Dr. Brock, who is based in Australia.

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And ambitions sometimes shift, especially when a career-oriented person joins the parenting club. Look at the recent resignation of New Zealand’s former prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. While she did not directly say that she was stepping down for her family, she did say her tank was empty. She said, “We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.” Ardern was elected prime minister in 2017 and one year later she gave birth to her daughter Neve. Ardern went on to say that she was resigning because she knew she could win re-election. She wasn’t done with the work, but her desire to be there for Neve when she starts school this year overpowered her desire to put her career trajectory first. Her personal metrics for ambition changed.

The Myth of the Perfect Mother

Within motherhood, there are many common and pervasive narratives about what it means to be “successful.”

“The broader social construction of motherhood and the idealization of the ‘perfect mother’ is expected to be able to both maintain and pursue a successful and thriving career and be there unconditionally for her children providing 24/7 care and attention—all without adequate communal or structural support,” explains Dr. Brock.

Of course, the perfect mother model is impossible and unrealistic, and, to some extent, that’s the point. “It isn’t ambition itself that is problematic for us [as mothers]; it’s what we’re being ambitious about, where our ambition is directed, and why,” says Dr. Brock.

When Jennifer Wallace, a journalist and author of the upcoming book Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It, had her first son, she remembers channeling all of the ambition she had as a reporter into parenting. “I researched sunscreens and did deep dives on research papers about the best ways to raise competent kids; the parent-teacher conference became my ‘year-end review.'”

In a survey of 6,000 parents Wallace conducted for her book, she asked whether or not parents agreed with this statement: “Others think my children’s academic success is a reflection of my parenting.” Eighty-three percent of parents agreed. The majority of parents surveyed also reported feeling as though their children’s mental health and success in extracurriculars were reflections of their parenting.

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“How do you measure the ultimate goal of parenting, which is raising children to be who they’re meant to be and who they are?” asks Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester and founder of the organization of the same name that helps businesses support and retain moms and other caregiving employees, and co-founder of Chamber of Mothers. “I think a lot of people get really mired in the quotidian day-to-day measurements that let them put numbers and checklists behind what it is to be a ‘good’ parent.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with benchmarks, research, wearing multiple hats, or working hard. But when you feel like you’re chasing something that’s forever impossible—or if you struggle to keep up with the ambitions you have as a parent on top of the ambitions you have as an individual—you can feel stuck, says Dr. Brock.

It’s also that many of the necessary support structures required to make parenthood both an ambitious and feasible journey for everyone are lacking in the United States.

Our systems need to be set up in a way that offers mothers, parents, and families greater agency and autonomy to be able to strive toward and cultivate their ambition in a way that aligns with their values. — SOPHIE BROCK, PH.D.

Systemic issues and factors such as socioeconomic status, access to reproductive rights, racism, and more plague the journey from preconception through parenthood. Research suggests, for example, that Black parents are more likely than white parents to experience child care-related job disruptions. They also report lower quality pediatric care than white families.

Everything from how much you make to where you live and what you look like can impact your journey after a positive pregnancy test.

In short, it can often feel nearly impossible to parent the way you want to. “I think a lot of people internalize that and think there’s something wrong with them until they start comparing notes with their friends and realize that it’s the system; it’s not us,” says Brody.

Channeling Ambition as a Parent

So what is ambition in parenthood? To answer that, it’s important to get clear on what your values are as distinct from the “shoulds” society is selling you, says Dr. Brock.

Ambition is usually a process of self-discovery, adds Dr. Cotler.

It might start by realizing, simply, that you matter—and that you have a right to your own feelings, needs, and wants. It’s easy to lose sight of this, particularly as a woman and a parent, says Dr. Cotler, since society tends to condition women and mothers to put their needs last.

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You’ll also want to think about what makes you feel good and in control and what fills you up versus what is depleting you.

The next step involves structurally considering what support systems you have in place to reach certain goals while knowing that structural changes are imperative in redefining ambition as a culture and society. “Our systems need to be set up in a way that offers mothers, parents, and families greater agency and autonomy to be able to strive toward and cultivate their ambition in a way that aligns with their values,” says Dr. Brock.

After all, in some ways, it’s a privilege even to be able to ask yourself, “what do I desire?” notes Dr. Cotler. “That actually isn’t always an option.”

Ultimately though, finding a way to find your ambition—wherever it may be—matters, particularly in the context of mental health.

Some one in five women experience perinatal or postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs)—and ambition can be a central part of healing, explains Dr. Cotler.

“What ambition really is is a sense of meeting one’s desires, a sense of control and competency, and a sense of subjective agency in one’s own life—and those things are exactly what allow us to feel well,” she says. “When we feel like we are agents in our own lives, we don’t feel helpless, and we don’t feel invisible. When we recoin ambition, it becomes an antidote to some of these parental stressors.”

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