My husband and I ordered a special celebratory dinner the night my first book was published. It was an important professional milestone for me, and I was proud of all the hard work it took to get to that moment.
“Come on, guys,” he called up to my girls from the kitchen when the boxes of curry and spring rolls arrived. “Your mom just got home from the office and it’s time to eat. Let’s party. Your mom has a book out!”
My little one came bounding down the stairs, wearing some kind of cowgirl-meets-international princess ensemble. She climbed up on her chair and started digging into the rice on the plate in front of her.
“Good job, mommy,” she said through full bites of food. “Is there cake?”
My 6-year-old sauntered down our first flight of stairs and into the dining room, looking less than enthusiastic about her dinner options but very interested in the latest family news.
“Does that mean since you have the book out now you’re done with working, like for forever? Will tomorrow be a mommy-daughter day and all the days after that? Can you stop being a doctor now?”
It would have been easy to cave inward from the weight of that question. She was genuine in her ask and my reaction was sincere too. When she asked me to never leave her side, it fed into an ingrained belief I see so many women struggle with. It’s a belief that to be a good mom I need to be completely devoted to my children — above my work, above myself — above every other area of my life.
The next day at my pediatrics office, the opposite scenario ensued. At our monthly medical professional meeting, one of my partners passed around a sign-up sheet with a list of committee and volunteer opportunities.
“I want to remind everyone that this is not a lifestyle practice,” one of my partners voiced to the room. “Our work goes beyond clocking in at 9:00 am and clocking out at 5:00 pm. We each have to pull our weight. We need every person to pick up the slack and, right now, we really need more committee members — as many as possible.”
With the book newly published and my daughter’s comments fresh in my mind from the night before, I hesitated to add my name to the list but knew it might draw criticism from my business partners. I felt the same pressure all the other moms I know feel to be a good worker — someone who’s fully committed to my colleagues and my corporation, the kind of person who takes care of my personal life on my personal time, who doesn’t let family considerations interfere with my professional pursuits or efforts. The problem is, those 2 ideals, the good mother and the professional worker, both fully committed and laser-focused on their tasks, are at odds with one another, creating not just guilt but stress too. It’s the pursuit of both ideals at the same time, of perfection as we mother and as we strive professionally, that’s making it all feel like so much of a letdown. We’re having a horrible time because, somewhere along the line, we get bogged down in fake ideals of seeking the perfect balance. If we can move beyond those unattainable fantasies, though, and see working motherhood as the ultimate example of accepting trade-offs and benefits, we find ourselves in a unique position that, in the end, offers huge benefits to our kids.
I decided, in the end, to join 1 work committee — the one with the lowest time commitment and the least amount of energy required. When my kids are older and I’m in a different life stage, I’ll commit to more (maybe) and, if I do, it won’t be to fit a good worker ideal. It will be based on what my company needs and what works well for me at the time.
“Well,” I told my daughter that next night at the table. “Something interesting happened today. Mommy had to be strong so I could do what was best for you and for me. Here’s the thing, sweetie. I can’t stop working…but I also don’t want to stop working. I love you and your sister so much, and, at the same time, I love helping people. I want to use the special way I’m wired to help people who don’t live here with us too. What I can do is make sure we have plenty of opportunities to be together doing all the things we love and being connected with each other.”
“OK,” she said, taking it all in. Then, she brightened. “Actually, can I help? I know! I can make signs around the neighborhood telling new moms we can help them feel less scared about having their babies.”
My pride in her resilience puffed up like a balloon. See? I thought. Like me, she struggled initially with accepting that her vision of me connected at the hip all day, every day is unrealistic, but she was able to problem solve through it. By choosing a more middle road, I’m teaching her she can do the same when she’s older and in my shoes.
As working women, we have an opportunity to be an example of living with passion and priorities, of working hard, of staying committed, not necessarily to work itself but to the priorities we set around our work and our personal lives. When we work and parent simultaneously, we have a chance to teach our kids resilience — letting our kids see that even if they struggle with something they can handle it and get stronger from it — and to embrace a village mentality, not in a better way than stay-at-home moms can but in a very different way.
Above all, we have the unique pleasure of encouraging our own kids to find real balance and real joy as they live their lives and as they go on to work and parent the next generation.
Whitney Casares is a pediatrician and author of The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting Without Losing Yourself.
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