04/01/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Shape Your Mommy Legacy

Halfway through one of my presentations on how to return to the workforce after a hiatus of a decade or more, a woman in the audience added both humor and more somber reflection to the lively discussion.

At the time, I was speaking about the prickly "Lean In or Lean Out" debate, and suggesting -- first and foremost -- that women lean in the direction of financial security. My pragmatic, "stop the lean in madness" message goes like this: if you've got piles of money saved for retirement and a big financial umbrella that can shield you from any rainy day possibility, it's fine if you never want to generate a paycheck again. If your financial picture is less rosy, it makes sense -- whether you have two kids at home or 10 -- to find some kind of work that fits your life.

The woman in the audience agreed with my thinking, but took the discussion in a different direction. She told the story of her young daughter (now in elementary school) who said, "You know, Mommy, when I grow up I want to be just like you. I'm going to find a nice guy to marry -- one who makes a lot of money -- so I don't have to do anything."

This story elicited howls of laughter, especially when the woman ended with the comment, "Apparently, I'm a hooker..." As I laughed, I wondered if elementary school classrooms are now reading about the Princeton Mom's husband-hunting recommendations. But then all the women in the room realized the story is not so funny, and the discussion moved to the subject of role models and how children view the work you choose.

My mother -- who reentered the workforce in her 40s after a 20-year hiatus -- used to say that the hardest "work" was at home, not in the office. But even though running a household is no cakewalk, children of "stay-at-home Moms" tend to think that it's Dad out slaying the dragons and doing the really significant, big time "work." Just as they don't consider Dad's Saturday grass cutting or fence painting his real "work," they don't think Mom is "working" when she is cleaning the house.

It's all a matter of perception and communication. When children are home they often see mothers preparing meals, helping with homework, folding laundry and doing other tasks that seem familiar, easy and routine. They're not as aware of what else mothers out of the full-time workforce do while children are at school.

So tell them. Enlighten your children about the many definitions of "work." Tell them that both Mom and Dad do work that is both important and fulfilling. Venture beyond the work you do in the household. As adult children they will appreciate all you did to build and nurture the family unit, but be sure to tell them there's more to your story, too.

Give them the 411 about all those volunteer jobs you take on -- and exactly how your work helps people and organizations grow. Tell them about the money you raise and how that money helps people buy clothes, books and food. Tell them exactly how the programs you've run have made a difference in the lives of children, the elderly or the poor. Teach them the importance of "giving back", and explain that meaningful work doesn't always involve wearing business clothes and getting paid.

And if you are "secretly employed" -- you leave for a part-time job after children get on the school bus and magically reappear as they get off -- realize children don't know what they can't see. They clearly see Dad rush off in his business suit early in the morning and return in the same suit late at night -- after hours and hours of what generations of children have perceived as Important Dad Work. They probably don't know that for several hours a day you're working, too -- at a job that helps Dad pay for clothes, braces and family fun. Tell them what you do when you're at that job -- what you learn, what you create and the projects that benefit from your many skills. And give them a visual: show them web sites you've developed, products of companies you invest in or pictures of people you work next to every day.

If children think that only men "work" outside of the home, we can blame society -- or ourselves. Women need to blend their personal work stories into bedtime stories and teach both boys and girls that there are many ways Moms do important work outside of their homes, too.

This post was originally published on Kathryn Sollmann's blog, 9 Lives for Women, where she helps women navigate 9 stages of work and life from college through retirement years. Follow her practical advice on "Finding the Work that Fits Your Life".