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Reva Seth

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Think of the Children: Why We Need a New Story for Working Moms

Posted: 03/16/2012 4:56 pm

The Simpsons has a long running gag featuring the Reverend Lovejoy's wife hysterically shrieking "The children! Why won't anyone think of the children?" in response to any number of inconsequential events or trends.

Advocates of stay-at-home mothers like GOP candidate Rick Santorum certainly claim to. In his book, It Takes A Family, the alleged well-being of the children is the mainstay of his argument on why women should be at home with the kids.

Citing what's best for the kids is an argument that isn't going to change any time soon -- regardless of what recent data shows about the well being of children with working mothers.

Working mothers and their defenders need to add this angle to their case as well.

Currently, the dominant media and cultural narrative on the issue of children and careers is overwhelmingly negative.

Children are regularly positioned as obstacles and hurdles to professional success and career fulfillment. With the exception of celebrity stories and the corporate uber elite (e.g. self-made billionaire Sheryl Sandberg), the focus tends to be on the damage that children have to women's earnings and professional lives.

Imagine how that makes a child feel? After growing up with that as a backdrop, it shouldn't really be a surprise that Gen X is opting out of children altogether.

Of course, working moms today still face any number of challenges.

These include the lack of adequate child-care provisions, organizations that remain focused on face time versus outcomes and the toll that comes from the "second shift."

A recent study of business school graduates from the University of Chicago found that after graduation, men and women had "nearly identical incomes and weekly hours worked." Fifteen years later, however, the men were making about 40 percent more than the women.

The one subgroup whose careers resembled those of the men: women with no children.

But there is also good news. Many ordinary women successfully combine career success with a strong and happy family life -- but their stories tend to be overlooked.

And this is what we need to change.

There are many reasons to increase our focus on the post baby career success stories of ordinary working moms.

Their experiences provide genuine templates for other women, including ideas on how to create their own versions of post baby success. They also serve as a reminder to employers and colleagues that children don't impede career commitment and achievement.

But equally important, we owe it to our children to change the narrative on their impact on our careers, because who wants to grow up feeling like they are the reason that their mothers couldn't achieve their career and professional goals and dreams?

I grew up surrounded by this story -- women who explicitly or implicitly told their kids what they gave up for them. Like many of my friends, hearing this made me feel guilty, resentful and frustrated, after all, what could I do about it now?

It also made me resolve never to do this to my own kids, so much so, that when I had my first son, I actually wrote it down on a note card and taped it to my bathroom mirror.

An element of self sacrifice is inherent to parenting, but all of us, parents, children and employers would benefit from a cultural shift that stops framing children, family and career fulfillment as an either/or choice.

 

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