I promised my kids I was done working for the day. I closed my laptop and I took them to the pool. That night, after pizza and ice cream, we sat down on my bed to watch a movie. In the dark, I pulled my laptop out again. My daughter groaned. “More work? That laptop is your favorite third child.”
And I might have told her to get off my butt. And okay, maybe I didn’t use the word, “butt.” And okay, maybe I’m not the world’s greatest parent all the time. But what would that even look like?
I didn’t grow up with a mother who was employed outside of the home. My mom had eight children and homeschooled us until we reached high school. She was a professional mom. For most of my childhood, she made our bread from scratch, mixed up natural peanut butter with natural honey, and bought milk straight from a cow. (No, it wasn’t exactly legal.)
I remember the day I was 23 and she called me crying. She was going on a trip, and for the first time she wasn’t bringing along a diaper bag.
I love my mom, but I never wanted that. I wanted a career. I wanted employment and independence. And I have that. Except, I don’t always know what that looks like. I don’t know if it means I should always be the classroom volunteer or if it’s okay if I miss a Christmas party at school. I don’t know if it only means working after they go to bed, or saving my sanity and my own bedtime and asking them to give me a moment while I finish edits.
For a long time, I hid my work, I had a tight boundary between my work and life. I wanted to be a good mother. And to me, a good mother looked like my mom. Except, I also had work on top of all that.
Despite the fact that more mothers work outside of the home than at any point in history, women are spending more time with their kids than 50 years ago. I couldn’t keep it up.
When my son was two, he told me “Mommy’s work is pretend. Daddy’s is real.” It could have been one of those terrible things kids say, but it changed how I thought about my work. I wanted to let them see me work and to hear me talk about my work. Maybe I wouldn’t be perfect, maybe they’d feel ignored sometimes. But I wanted them to see me as more than just a mother. I wanted them to see me as a full person with passions and interests outside of them and their lives.
The pandemic collapsed all boundaries between work and life. Suddenly, my kids had a front row seat to my work. They listened as I interviewed immunologists and government officials. They heard me grill the local head of the Red Cross after the agency failed to respond to a natural disaster. And they even helped me start up a kids page for the newspaper, when our sports section lost pages during the pandemic.
My daughter still has some of the pages she worked on hanging up in her bedroom.
Having my children see my work showed them that work can be about more than just drudgery for money. It showed them that work could be exciting and hopeful and important. And more than that, it has shown them that I am not just a mom, I am a person. I love hearing my kids brag about my work. On vacation, my daughter told a complete stranger, “My mom is a writer. She works hard and people yell at her!”
The data on parenting and work is just as biased as our assumptions about motherhood and work. For a long time, studies only showed the impact of a working mother on the emotional and social development of kids. They didn’t look at fathers. Studies now, look at both genders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that just looks at the impact of working fathers alone.
Despite the bias, a Harvard Business Review of the data, showed that having a working parent doesn’t really seem to impact a child as much as we think. Social class, income, and other social factors have a heavier impact on children than whether their mom is in the office. The Business Review of the data concludes, “We also found children were better off when parents cared about work as a source of challenge, creativity, and enjoyment, again, without regard to the time spent.”
In fact, a 2015 study found that daughters of working parents have a higher income and perform better in their eventual careers.
It’s data I found reassuring, but it also felt empty. Isn’t analyzing a person’s work through the impact it’s having on their children looking at it all wrong? Wasn’t I allowed to make choices and have a life even if it sometimes stressed out my kids? I mean I think natural peanut butter is disgusting and I’m fine with store-bought bread. Life is not and should not be about being perfect for our kids or raising them in perfect environments.
My primary goal as a parent isn’t to make every decision to make my children’s lives easier.
My primary goal as a parent isn’t to orient my whole entire existence around my kids.
My primary goal is to live my life with passion and creativity and show it. And I hope that rubs off on my kids in some small way.