Why Should Women be Less Ambitious in Work Life?

maternity leave, women and business
Happy mom, high-powered career -- do these have to be at odds?

Granted, I have not read the book, Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career — and Life — That’s Right for You. Judging from this Q&A with the authors, Barbara Kelley, a journalism professor, and her daughter Shannon Kelley, who works in public relations, I don’t think I will.

I’m as interested in work-life balance issues as the next mom-with-ambitions-and-not-enough-childcare, but it doesn’t sound like this book offers any new insight. Particularly off-putting is that it, again, it appears to attribute work-/life-balance misery to women themselves, as if, deep down, we’d all like to make cupcakes if only there were more hours in the day.


The mother-daughter author pair say today’s moms, women who were raised to believe they could do anything and got the educations in order to do so, have no role models for how to get to the top and also have a family.

Consider this exchange in the U.S. News interview, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune:


Q: You write that it’s impossible to have both a high-powered career and a family. Why? What’s wrong with trying to have it all?

BK: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to accomplish that, but if your expectations are [that] both will be perfect, I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed, because you can’t be in two places at the same time. It’s what we call in the book “opportunity cost,” which is an economics term. If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B. Unless you have an awful lot of help at home, I don’t see how you can be at work for 52 hours a week and be arranging play dates and taking your kids to the park and baking cupcakes. It’s physically impossible. Of course, men have been doing this for years because they have their wives to do the cupcakes.

When we give younger women the message that hey, you can do everything, you can have it all, it’s all going to be perfect, there’s a sense of almost failure when you can’t do it all.


Dirty little parenting secret that women with demanding careers know but get totally slammed if they actually admit it: playdates, the park and cupcakes are completely superfluous to child-rearing and ranking as a good mom. Nothing wrong with those things either, but they’re optional, totally optional. That these kinds of things get brought up as central to the struggle of modern women who want both career and family distracts us from what’s really at work (pun!) here and that is that there is no enough societal support for working families — be they one- or two-parent set ups, any combo of male or female.

What drags ambitious working mothers down is the fact that good, quality and, most of all — affordable! — childcare and, eventually, preschool, is hard to find. Once found, the hours don’t always coincide with work realities. Post preschool, there’s the battle of finding good schools and then all those little and big breaks throughout the year — breaks for the kids and not for the working parents, who have to (see: above) scramble for more affordable good quality childcare.

There’s also the issue of things too-short maternity leaves, expensive healthcare and a national mentality that requires adults be supervising their children essentially around the clock. These things are the real impediments to women — the hurdles that are set juuuust a tad high that, without a lot of money, an open-minded workplace, and local family, luck is the only thing left to help you clear them.

Who wants to count on luck when you’ve got goals you want to accomplish?

Whether in this book or elsewhere, I think it’s irresponsible in any discussions about the challenges of modern parenting for men or women when we don’t, even in passing, mention any of this. Why are we so willing to encourage young women who are not yet mothers to ratchet down the drive?

Some advice that comes through in this work-life balance interview is that women should be willing to settle. That’s the problem. When it comes to the logistics of raising children and climbing the corporate ladder, settling is the only option — be it holding back until the kids are out of school (tough luck for the moms who had kids in their 30s and 40s!) or spending a ton of money on a personal nanny, which means a woman has to settle for only a narrowly defined kind of ambition — one that brings in enough money.

Sharon Lerner wrote an excellent book called The War on Moms. I interviewed her for Strollerderby and she addresses these issues and shows evidence that it’s not impossible to create a more supportive place for all moms, career-focused or not.

That’s what we need to be talking more about — how society can meet the needs of working women who also want to be moms, whatever level they’re at, however ambitious they are, and not the other way around. American women, whether they want to or not, by default meet society’s needs. Talk of change doesn’t start and stop with cupcakes. In fact, cupcakes have absolutely nothing to do with it.


Article Posted 5 years Ago

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