10/16/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Nobel Moms

Not too long ago, an Italian colleague asked me if I planned on having children. I said absolutely, I want at least two, and his response was "Well, you'd better get started, and if you want to keep working you could be a novelist." I was 27, had recently graduated from New York University School of Law, and this was neither the first nor the last time that I heard some version of "you can't have it all."

Were these my choices? I found an unexpected answer during research I was doing on Nobel laureates. I wasn't looking for the heroine. I wanted to understand what makes some people successful using what many would consider to be an indisputable indicator of success, the Nobel Prize. Of course, there are the obvious merit-based factors: talent, drive, intelligence and hard work, but that's not everything. A little luck and savvy is most certainly necessary, but I expected economic advantage to rise to the surface as a thread that connects Nobel winners. Instead I found an altogether different and more exciting story: It was the mothers who surfaced.

From 2001-2011, 70 Americans won prizes in all of the Nobel categories combined, and I collected data on the 65 of these recipients whose biographical information has been published by the Nobel Foundation. Out of those biographies, 52 laureates provided information about their parents, and as I read through them a clear pattern emerged. An overwhelming majority -- 39 -- had mothers who either worked, were highly educated, or both.

I read about Pauline Gore, one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt University Law School; Lucy Dodd, who moved to Italy in the late 1800's to pursue her dream of becoming a painter; Fanny Davidovna Vulf, who was a practicing physician in the beginning of the 20th century. I did not expect to find the mothers and grandmothers, described over and over again by their Nobel-Prize winning offspring as pillars of strength, champions of education and unsung heroes. It's important to note that most of these women were becoming doctors and professors and lawyers and entrepreneurs in a pre-World War II era, before second wave feminism. In some cases, like that of John B. Fenn (2002 Nobel recipient in chemistry), his mother earned a college degree before she earned the right to vote. In 1910 Fenn's mother was one of the first women to graduate from Columbia University. That is extraordinary.

In the current political climate, the story of Nobel Moms is a timely reminder that attacks against women's rights are attacks against the economic and intellectual strength of our country. But the thing about the Nobel Moms that I find most interesting is that their successes challenge the career vs. motherhood paradigm. They were heroines, but not because they were super-human or perfect or because they "had it all." Some of them worked only because they had to, some of them gave up careers to become housewives, many of them had husbands who were equally devoted to the care and education of their children, and many relied on the support of extended family and community. What they all did do, however, was channel their own experience, education and drive into raising exceptional children.

My heroine is Lucy Dodd, the trailblazing painter who moved to Italy. She had a daughter, Lucy Ramberg, who inherited her mother's independent spirit and strength. Lucy was raised in Italy, spoke six languages and became an accomplished poet. In 1941 she was arrested by the Nazis for anti-facist activity, and her 4-year-old son, Mario Capecchi, did not see his mother again until 1946. After the war, Mario and his mother moved to the United States where, in 2007, he won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The thing is I, like most women I know, don't want it all. We want choices, we want to be active members of society, and we expect our choices to make us better parents if and when we decide to have families.

I'm not a mother yet, and I have no idea what kind of mother I will be or how I will integrate career and parenthood, but I certainly am not going to accept a false choice between housewife and novelist, between career and motherhood. No woman should have to accept that choice. Al Gore's mother didn't. Barack Obama's mother didn't either. These are the Nobel Moms, and they gave us more than their exceptional children. They gave us living proof that we, as a nation, are stronger when men and women can choose how and where to contribute intellectual capital to our families and communities.