05/30/2013 08:56 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Gender Neutral

Sara Wood

One word I have never used to describe myself to others is "woman." Adventurer, mother, friend, colleague, type A, liberal, oversharer, Southerner, donut-lover, yes, but never "woman."

Headlines that refer to "Women in [insert industry here]" have always annoyed me. I find that the insistence that we be singled out by our gender is, in part, what encourages many of us to doubt our equality. I grew up in the deep South, surrounded by brothers and boy cousins. I could run as fast, swim as far and fight as tough as any of them. I have never wanted to be noticed because I was a girl. I figured that, at least, was obvious. I was raised to have confidence that I could do anything and be anything as long as I worked hard at it.

So, I have done my best to steer clear of the recent spate of posts with titles like "Women in the Tech World" and to avoid reading the responses to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In that my friends have all been discussing. But it's not just the singling out of a person's gender that bothers me. The points being made about women in the workplace are being conflated with motherhood in a way that makes me feel that I have to embrace the cause of both in order to be either. And I don't want to.

It was unfair, to me, that Marissa Mayer was slammed for taking a short maternity leave. Yes, Mayer is rich and can afford an army of help around-the-clock, but that doesn't mean she isn't a dedicated mother. Conversely, being a dedicated mother doesn't mean you aren't dedicated at your job.

Before you have children (if you decide to have them in the first place), you don't doubt that you'll still excel at your job. That you will still have time for a social life. That you will never be the type of parent who lets their kid play video games or, god forbid, give them meds for ADHD. You'll be perfect and funny; the envy of all your friends with lesser parenting skills. You fantasize about how well-behaved and darling your kids will be; bilingual, good-looking, smart. And if you read all the fuss about high-powered female execs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, if you read Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic with fascination, if you hear Obama mention daycare in his State of the Union speech, you'll believe you can be and have all of those things.

But then you have kids and reality sets in. That's not to say you won't be right about some things, but you'll be lucky if you are.

At my office, Lean In was added to our shared reading library. It was added alongside books on communication skills and agile methodology for software development. I read it with a near-identical reaction to Anne Applebaum's in the New York Review of Books:

From the beginning to the end of Lean In, Sandberg argues again and again that women must overcome internal and external barriers, welcome challenges, not back away, not assume they won't be able to do something because they are pregnant or might be pregnant or won't be able to cope.

Which is the crux of my problem with the advice. I have never shied away from anything because I am a woman. In my career, I have taken on challenges without questioning my ability or experience over and over, just as in my life, I have put myself in far-flung corners of the world doing things that might scare the less adventurous. I don't think, I am a woman, let me show them that women can too. I think, This is exactly what I want to be doing with my life right now. And since becoming a mother, that character trait has not changed one bit. It's just that now, I feel guilty for not being able to do more as a mom and more as an employee at the same time. This is the rub of the modern working mother.

I work in the tech industry. I like my job. I am extraordinarily busy, which I guess is a good thing. Our society values the art of 'busyness' above all else. People wear it with a badge of beleaguered pride. To be busy is to be validated. But I am also a mom. A single one. With a kid that has special needs. And since this whole debate started, I have started weaving more adjectives into how I talk about myself to others. Like, "single working mother." I'm trying it on for size.

But "woman?" It's still not at the top of the list. I don't want special treatment in support or recognition of the fact that I am female. For me to get where I am in my career, I have had to be willing to have hard conversations where I stick up for myself and my beliefs -- and I believe that would be the same for anyone, man or woman.

As for motherhood, most anyone who has children can attest that once you have children, your identity changes. It isn't something you think too much about. But one day, you are childless and the next, you are a parent. That is permanent. You have to squeeze that word in alongside everything else you are. And it is great.

It is in our own interest as a society to find non-zero-sum solutions for strong mothers in the workplace. I don't want to sacrifice work for a home life just as much as I don't want to sacrifice a home life for work. I believe we can do things like raise families (even those of us with 100% responsibility, financial and otherwise) while holding down full-time jobs -- and we could do them both well if we could stop feeling the shame of dropping the M-word at the office. Often, simple adjectives define a person in a way that gender doesn't.