I’m a writer at the University of Chicago, so when I learned that the vice president of communications would be sharing some life lessons at a brown bag lunch for the school’s Working Mothers group earlier this summer, I signed up.
As I tried to spit cherry pits quietly into an empty Tupperware container, Julie Peterson spoke to a packed conference room about her career as a writer and mother of three. She detailed the childcare decisions she had to make, the choices she made for her own sanity (good to know: boys will apparently accept frozen pretzels as a dinner entree), and some of the mistakes she made as well. Even as she admitted to an after-soccer pickup snafu, though, I marveled at her confidence. Not once during her presentation did she utter the words "guilt" or "sacrifice." She seemed quite secure—confident, even—in the path she took as a mother and worker.
I’m still new to the game, myself; Peterson’s three sons are all adults, whereas my son is only two. However, like her, I also am privileged to say that I feel good about my work-life balance. Unlike Peterson, though, I’m working on owning that.
Not long after hearing Peterson’s talk, a friend pointed out that I said "I feel bad" about putting my son in his wonderful daycare while I go to my good job and my husband works for a successful company he started. "It doesn’t sound like you feel so bad," she said, and she was right. "I don’t even know why I said that," I admitted. It was just something that came out of my mouth, like an automatic "excuse me" or "bless you." Maybe I was worried that saying that I felt fine about leaving my son with somebody else for 10 hours a day made me look uncaring. Maybe it just seemed somehow rude to say that I felt satisfied with my work-life balance, when so many women do not. Saying that I felt like I was doing wrong somehow seemed right, even though it wasn’t the truth.
Curious about whether Peterson purposefully left out any talk of guilt or shame as a working mother, I reached out to her to learn more about whether she ever has a case of the obligatory "feel bads."
The answer is no. "I’m generally a person who doesn’t feel a lot of guilt anyway," she told me, saying that while she sets high standards for herself, she also tends to meet those standards. Instead of overly concerning herself with pleasing others, she says, "I know what’s right and wrong for me." That includes knowing she wanted to be a working mother from the get-go. "Job and career were always important to me. I was interested in the intellectual stimulation and I needed the adult conversation during the day," she says. After a few weeks of maternity leave, "I was ready to get out out of the house."
Peterson grew up with a good model: her own mother went to college and then worked full-time as a nurse in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, which was significantly rarer then than it is now. Her parents took turns taking care of their children, utilizing babysitters, summer camps, and school. "She didn’t seem to feel guilty about it," Peterson said, noting that her mother was bolstered by a supportive husband. "There were never any mixed messages in our household," she says. "I think I had terrific parents."
So Peterson had a role model that disproved what she calls "an antiquated attitude that the only good mom is one who is home. There are many ways to be a great mom." Even for those of us who know that, we still apologize because, as Peterson speculates, women are taught to please, to "satisfy other people’s standards and then apologize for when we don’t live up to whatever we think they want from us, even if we don’t really know what that is."
This type of people-pleasing comes up in the research of Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, who has spent nearly three decades studying gender roles amongst parents. She points to an entirely unqualified media that perpetuates baseless ideals of what good a mother should look like (if in doubt, just Google "best and worst moms" and imagine how you’d stack up under that type of scrutiny).
"You’re violating a norm," she says, to admit a lack of guilt when it comes not taking the route she describes as "intensive parenting." This ideal, she says, is not based on research, but merely the "media culture we live in," one that says "you can’t be a good mother if you’re working." She mentions several tenets that are accepted as fact by popular culture—ones that have been doubted or even disproved in scientific research: that long-term breastfeeding is significantly superior; that daycare is not a good option; that children of stay-at-home mothers have an advantage over children of working mothers.
"The ideal is this attentive mother," Barnett says, one that miraculously manages to spend time at home without having to address housework or other duties. "But what are we comparing ourselves to? My grandmother had 13 children and she didn’t have time for any of those children." The cultural ideals, she says, aren’t based on data. They're based, instead, on a "Hallmark Greeting card." The point is, there is no model we need to strive to emulate, or even pretend like we’re trying to emulate.
But still, bucking the people-pleasing tendency is easier said than done. So how do we avoid feeling like we have to pretend like we’re trying to live up to the greeting card?
One tip Peterson volunteered is to stop to tally up the skills you’ve learned at work that make you a great parent and vice versa. "If you can say, ‘I have learned to be courteous and patient even when people are not,’" Peterson says, "and you take that into parenting, you can be a better parent." In the meantime, Peterson feels that she’s served as a model for her own adult sons, who she feels have gravitated towards strong women for their own partners.
Barnett feels similarly: instead of guilt, whether sincere or obligatory, a working mother "who feels satisfied, who is also contributing to the household income and making her life better for her child should feel good about that."
This has all given me food for thought and made me realize how silly my own apologizing is. Sure, sometimes on Mondays, after a great weekend, I feel bummed about going back to work, but that’s not indicative that I am doing wrong by my son. I know our current situation is what’s best for my family: I could probably stay at home if I really wanted to, but I really don’t. Everybody seems to be doing just fine.
I think of the working mother’s apology as an offshoot of the female apology. As Peterson notes, it’s quite possible that we’re not living up to someone else’s standard, but being a mom means being able to juggle a tremendous amount of work (whether it’s in an office or at home) and so you’d think we’d be tougher than to care about what somebody else might think of our style. I’m grateful that I feel good about my work-life balance, and that’s not something to apologize for.