Last week Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, caused a stir when, while being interviewed at the Aspen Ideas Festival, she answered David Bradley's age-old question about whether women can truly balance family and career by saying "I don't think women can have it all." The salient emotion she expressed throughout the interview was her profound guilt that she was letting her children down, saying "you just die with guilt." Whether or not you agree with Ms. Nooyi's overall premise that women can't have it all, the working mom's guilt is all too familiar to those of us who are trying to raise families and pursue our careers. And it is precisely this guilt that needs to be jettisoned from our psyches if we are ever to truly achieve work-life balance.
I think the most poignant statement of Nooyi's interview was when she questioned whether her daughters would say she had been a good mother. The idea that your own children would not call you a good mother is the nightmare every working woman dreads -- hence the guilt. But does working hard outside the home preclude being a good mother? It depends on your definition of motherhood.
My mother was pregnant with me when she migrated to the U.S. with a medical degree from Sri Lanka and a position in a residency program in Brooklyn. For as long as I can remember, she worked long hours in the hospital. In fact, after practicing for a few years as an internist, she decided to pursue a fellowship in gastroenterology, an even more demanding career path. In the mid-seventies gastroenterology was a male-dominated field -- very few women chose the specialty because it had a grueling fellowship and frequent middle- of-the night emergency cases. It was not considered conducive to raising a family. But my mother was more interested in gastroenterology than any other specialty and with the support and encouragement of my father and a male mentor at her hospital she decided to pursue her dream despite the three hour daily commute it would entail. So what was it like to be the child of a hard-working mother? I remember spending a lot of time alone -- which I loved. I became very independent and learned to easily entertain myself. I also bonded with my father more than most girls my age -- he would take me dress shopping if I needed one for a party or teach me to cook -- a favorite hobby of his. My mother and I would spend time together when she had time off -- shopping or sharing a grilled cheese and fries at TGI Fridays -- our weekly treat together when the babysitter had the evening off. And though I sometimes observed that my life was somewhat different than those of my friends whose mothers were at home, it never really bothered me. I remember noticing that for school lunch some kids would bring sandwiches cut out in shapes like hearts or diamonds -- made by their mothers. Rather than feel sad that my mother didn't make cut out sandwiches, I decided to prepare my own sandwiches and cut out shapes myself. I took pride in doing this, and I look at the cultivation of independence that my childhood provided as a gift that helps me today in my career and personal life.
So was my mother a "good'mom? From Nooyi's perspective, probably not. But I think my mom was an amazing parent who, when she was with me, made me feel loved and supported throughout my childhood, and when she was not with me, was an interesting and inspirational role model as a woman pursuing her ambition and succeeding in her career. Eventually, I also became a gastroenterologist, but thanks to my mother's example, I did not have to struggle with the decision about whether I could handle such a demanding schedule and be a good mother -- I had seen first-hand that it was possible. I also thank both my parents for showing me an incredible example of partnership when it came to child-rearing. My father was every bit as involved in my upbringing as my mother, and not only did he not resent it, he loved it. Growing up with that model, it would have been hard for me to accept traditional gender roles when it came to raising my own children and luckily, my husband is equally enlightened. His father passed away when he was three, leaving his mother with two children to raise and a medical career to pursue. His mother always worked and with the help of her own parents she put a strong support system in place to ensure her children were happy and healthy. Because of our childhoods, my husband and I share a perspective on motherhood that differs from the conventional one. We did not judge our mothers on how much time they spent with us, but on the whole picture -- who they were as women, how they provided for us, and the love they showed us. If, however, you only look at the time spent with children when judging a mother, then working women will always feel they are failing compared to the mothers who stay at home.
Another factor that adds to working mom's guilt is the way child-rearing has changed in the last few decades. When I was growing up, it was tail end of the "children are meant to be seen not heard" era. My parents did not spend every waking moment trying to entertain me -- they went about their lives with me as a tag along. We traveled together, did errands together, and -- dare I say it -- watched TV together. Now don't get me wrong, they did sign me up for some lessons and activities that were tailored to children but there was lot of unscheduled time where we simply hung out. I would attend dinner parties with them and sit quietly at the table fascinated by the adult conversation, learning about life, politics and culture in the process. Now children (mine included) expect crayons and drawing pads at restaurants, or need an iPad to be quiet at the dinner table. They constantly demand attention -- which is natural for them, and we cater to it -- which is our fault. A child psychologist once told me that small children will always want more time with their parents -- this does not mean they truly need more time developmentally, but simply that they are never satiated. If you try to always meet their demands, you will never succeed, resulting yet again in guilt. And for working parents, the guilt is compounded because you are spending less time than you would if you did not work. And notice I say working parents -- the men are not getting off scott-free in this one. It used to be that men were expected to earn money to support the family and were excused from child-rearing duties. Now there are ads about how fathers need to spend more time with their children, so they too are facing the guilt and stress of trying to "have it all." I totally agree that men should be involved in their children's lives -- not just to ease the mother's burden, but also so they can enjoy the joy their children can bring. But this relatively new expectation of fathers creates guilt similar to what working women face.
Guilt is a negative and unhealthy emotion that weighs on a person's psyche, ultimately making them unhappy and unproductive. So how do we eradicate this pernicious guilt that pervades a working mother's world? First we start with ourselves. We have to believe that we deserve to pursue our career dreams as much as any man does, and that having two X chromosomes does not mean that the responsibility for raising children rests only on our shoulders. We also have to believe that being a good mother is not solely defined by how many hours we spend with our children. Working women can pass on values of hard work, ambition, and being a productive member of society -- and they can teach their daughters and sons the importance of self-reliance and self-worth. And what about the flip-side? Is staying at home really the ideal way to raise a child? Not necessarily. We all know people (and may have even dated some) that were raised by mothers who literally spent every waking moments putting their child's needs before their own. The result? A spoiled and selfish human being. Of course, there are many stay-at-home moms who raise wonderful well-adjusted children but we should not assume that a non-working mom is the best scenario for a child. Working women should feel proud of the work they do - for their own satisfaction, for the economic support they provide for their family, and for being role models for their children. Working moms also learn to be creative and efficient which I see as a positive byproduct rather than Nooyi's term "coping mechanism" which implies something you use to deal with a terrible situation.
Second, we need to change the expectations of those around us. If you want to have a family and a career and not feel burdened by guilt -- it is imperative that you choose a partner who is willing and able to play an equal role in raising those children. And they have to truly believe that it is their job as much is it is yours. I have been incredibly lucky to be married to a man who loves spending time with his sons and respects and encourages my ambition. When I decided to pursue a second career in the media, he was happy to take on an even more responsibility with our sons. I frequently leave the house in the wee hours to go to the TV studio, or have to travel cross-country for a show -- and he never complains about being solo parent for a bit. When I recently had the chance to start my own line of healthy living products he was excited about the opportunity for me even though it would mean more work for him. But not everyone is willing to embrace this new definition of motherhood. When Nooyi spoke about her mother expecting her to go out and buy milk after a long day rather than ask her husband who had been home for hours, this struck me as an archaic attitude that should not be tolerated let alone perpetuated. Why shouldn't the parent who gets home first get the milk? Her mother's attitude suggests the archetype of motherhood that Nooyi was raised with, and therefore it is not surprising that she does not feel like she is measuring up.
Lastly, society needs to change to make it easier for women and men to "have it all". This entire conversation assumes a level of economic freedom that much of the country does not enjoy. Many women simply must work for economic reasons, and others simply cannot work because they cannot afford childcare. So economic support is crucial for mothers whether they work or not. But even in the best economic circumstances, most workplaces do not encourage work-life balance. It is encouraging that President Obama recently held a White House Summit on working families and the policies that need to change to help them achieve work-life balance. Companies need to allow more flexibility in the work day and more humane work hours so families can spend more time together. But it will take more women in power to see these changes implemented. The companies I know that are already implementing more family-friendly policies are usually run by women. So for us to see real change, women need to believe they can pursue a career and raise a family well, so they can rise to the top and have an impact. This is why, while I respect Ms. Nooyi's right to express her opinion and her feelings, I think the effect of her words may be damaging. As a South Asian woman at the helm of one of the largest global corporations, Indra Nooyi certainly deserves our respect and admiration. But when considering her views on work-life balance, we have to remember that as the CEO of such a huge organization the demands on her time are more than those of probably 99.9 percent of the working population -- male or female. So while it may be nearly impossible for her to find work-life balance I don't think it is fair to say that working women in general cannot do so. Young women who feel they must choose between career and family should know that there are many successful working women who are also great mothers. It is not easy, it takes a lot of work and creativity, but it can be achieved. And yes, you need to make difficult choices. Not every job or opportunity will work. If you are traveling the majority of the week or working until midnight every night, it will be very difficult to have a satisfying relationship with your children. You must look for situations that afford some flexibility, some level of control over your schedule. And yes, life will be very hectic and exhausting -- but also truly fulfilling. My life is incredibly busy but also incredibly full. I love being a gastroenterologist, a television contributor, and now an entrepreneur. And the moments of my life that I love best of all? Snuggling with my boys while I read them stories before bed. If I had to choose between my work and the snuggles, I would definitely choose the snuggles. But luckily, I don't feel that I have to choose.
Roshini Raj MD is a mother, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at NYU School of Medicine, Contributor to GoodDayNY and Today show, Contributing Medical Editor of Health Magazine, author of What the Yuck?! The Freaky and Fabulous Truth About Your Body, and co-founder of TULA.