The Ideal Mother Vs. The Ideal Worker

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A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion about motherhood in academia.

Along with other female professors with children, I answered questions from the audience, most of whom were female Ph.D. students thinking about whether and when to have children — and whether academia was the right choice for them.

One of the questions — posed with greater eloquence and context — was essentially this: Is it possible to be a good academic and also a good mother?

I, and the other panelists, muddled through some answers. But the question has been nagging at me since. That's because it was nagging at me long before I found myself asked by another person. It's a question that many working mothers ask themselves in various forms — whether they are doing right by their kids and their careers, whether and how they could do less or do more or do better.

Admittedly, it's a privilege to experience this as a dilemma. For many women, having a less demanding job — or no job at all — is not a realistic possibility. But for women considering careers in science, academia and beyond, the "mom penalty" is a reality that can shape their decisions and advancement.

So here's a second attempt to grapple with the question: Is it possible to be a good academic and also a good mother?

My aim, though, isn't necessarily to answer the question. My aim is to change the questions we're asking.

First, the question is much too general. Women aren't simply "mothers" or "scientists" or "scholars." They are individuals who find themselves in unique situations, one-of-a-kind webs of interests, opportunities and obligations. What's right for one woman, given her priorities and her circumstances, may not be right for another.

Second, the question is much too specific. The focus on motherhood versus career obscures women's additional roles and identities. Women can be mothers and workers, but they can also be daughters, wives and friends. They can write poetry for fun, run marathons and play violin. The question is too specific because it fails to make room for the broader questions all of us face about how to balance and trade off our many roles and goals. Working mothers are more than just workers and mothers.

Third, when we think of "good mothers" we typically bring to mind an idealized fiction, what Elizabeth Weiss, writing for The New Yorker, calls "the myth of the ideal mother." The form of the ideal can vary across people, time and space, but the good mother of 2016 America, for many middle-class families, is a fiction indeed. She is a selfless caregiver, nearly all things to her children, but also fit, well-groomed, ambitious and successful in all she does — provided that what she does aligns with her roles as mother and wife.

This fictional creature is a cultural and historical anomaly. Today's mothers actually spend more time with their children, on average, than mothers of the mid-'60s. Moreover, humans are cooperative breeders. Being raised by mom and mom alone is not a "natural" condition, nor one we should reasonably aspire to.

Equally fictitious is the "ideal worker." Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy characterizes the supporting cultural ideology as one that "defines the career as a calling or vocation that deserves single-minded allegiance and gives meaning and purpose to life." The ideal worker is always available, unconstrained by obligations beyond the workplace. It follows that the ideal worker is not a caregiver and, certainly, not an ideal mother.

When we critically examine what it means to be a "good mother" and a "good worker," when we reject these categories as defining a woman's life, and when we allow ourselves to look beyond generalizations to individual cases, we can start to ask new questions.

It's not possible to be an ideal mother and an ideal worker, but the problem is with the ideals, not with the women who aspire to occupy both roles. It is possible to carefully question and examine one's priorities and circumstances, and to make life decisions that take more than one role or goal into account. Almost certainly, this examination will reveal ways in which parents and children could be better supported, and workplaces better designed.

Almost certainly, there will be tradeoffs and difficult decisions. And almost certainly, the effort will pay off — whatever each woman decides.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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