IDEAL MOTHER BIAS
In a 2012 comprehensive study67 of attitudes toward working mothers, only 16 percent of American men and women thought a mother should work full-time. Meanwhile, a full 30 percent believed a mother should not work at all. Why? Because they believe moms are best.
I’m sure I don’t need to regale you with all of the studies that show children need committed, engaged caregivers to thrive, but there is little definitive data that says moms are the best caregivers of all. When it comes to helping children flourish, study after study has shown children actually do well, if not better, if their mothers work.
According to a 2015 article by New York Times journalist Claire Cain Miller, “In a new study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Having a working mother didn’t influence the careers of sons, which researchers said was unsurprising because men were generally expected to work but sons of working mothers did spend more time on child care and housework.”68
And, a 2010 meta-analysis69 that rounded up sixty-nine studies over fifty years confirmed that young children with working mothers went on to have no major learning, behavior, or social problems. In fact, they tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety than those whose mothers didn’t work outside the home.
And yet, we still convince ourselves that mothers (not fathers!) are best. Isn’t the most insidious bias of all the one that reinforces the myth that children only thrive with a mother at home to care for them? If that truly is the case, how can a woman possibly justify having a career? What mother wouldn’t be wracked with guilt every time her child got a cold, had a challenge in school, didn’t get invited to that special playdate? It is this very thinking that sends so many bright, talented women racing for home.
It happened to Julie Ligon. She was a rising star working in marketing at The Gap when she became pregnant with her first child. Her female boss, who was a mom and a vice president, told Julie, “If you’re doing your job well that means you’re not being a good mom and if you are being a good mom, you’re not doing your job well. It’s a no-win situation.”
Julie loved the fast pace and the dynamic group of people she worked with, but Julie had no idea how to prove her boss wrong and be both a good mother and good at her job. Before her child was born, she was already set up to feel like a failure. After she gave birth, she put her daughter into a small day care group where Julie knew her new baby was safe and well cared for. And then her daughter got sick.
“My baby got a fever and I was in meetings and unavailable all day. Good moms don’t do that,” Julie told me. She asked to work part-time, three days a week. No go. Then she asked if she could at least work from home a few days a week. Again, no go. So Julie quit.
Like so many women who leave the workforce, Julie loved her job, but she felt the pressure to be an “ideal” mom, one who is available to meet the needs of her children at all times. As Julie told me, “I always wanted to be a mom So leaving wasn’t that big of a deal.”
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Perhaps not. Julie has since become a franchisee of the Dailey Method and happily teaches classes around her children’s schedules. But the truth is, she may well have stayed and become one of those women we all say we want at the top, if the flexibility she needed had been there for her. The intransigent workplace coupled with her own sense of the “ideal” mother meant the only solution for Julie was to leave the corporate world.
When I asked why her husband couldn’t have taken care of their ill daughter, Julie said it never even occurred to her. Partly because his career in sales was so demanding, but also because she felt she was “the mom” and would take better care of their baby.
Therein lies yet another problem with the notion of the “ideal” mom: Fathers get second billing.
We are seeing a huge spike in the numbers of fathers who are taking the lead as primary parent and yet we still convince ourselves mothers are best. Not only does this keep mothers from being able to fully commit to their careers, it keeps fathers from being fully committed to their roles as engaged parents. As one stay-at-home dad told me, “It’s so damn insulting when everyone assumes my children aren’t getting the best care because my wife works and I’m the one at home.”
I believe the ideal mother bias is a key reason most ambitious women leave their careers. Yes, the workplace can be intolerable, but many of us still tolerate it. It’s the inability to make peace with our perception that we are the best caregivers for our children that holds most women back. I know it did me.
Good mothers, we were (and still are) told, put their children’s needs first. Mothers who put their careers first were (are) selfish. Just as I had internalized the message that women needed to be all-in if they wanted a successful career, I had internalized the message that mothers need to be all-in if they wanted their children to thrive. I knew I couldn’t do both, so something had to give. When it came to weighing what I was willing to sacrifice, I realized I was more willing to sacrifice my career than I was willing to sacrifice my sense of my children’s well-being. I knew I couldn’t live with the guilt if anything were to happen to them
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