Any woman who has ever pumped breast milk between meetings, arrived late to daycare pickup (once again), or been passed over for a promotion because she leaves the office earlier than childless colleagues knows the struggle of trying to combine work and motherhood.
The pressure to climb the corporate ladder while also throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties, volunteering in the kids’ classrooms, serving up home-cooked (organic!) meals day after day — and somehow making time for weekly date nights, lest your marriage fall apart — can result in off-the-charts stress levels. That’s why many highly educated, professionally successful women choose to leave the workforce and dedicate themselves full-time to motherhood. This so-called “opt-out revolution” was explored in a popular and widely circulated New York Times article from 2003.
“There is a real dysfunction where family life has evolved incredibly in the last five decades — we’ve gone from most mothers staying home to most being in the workforce — but the workplace hasn’t changed that much since the 60s,” says Katrina Alcorn, author of “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.”
Despite significant advances in technology, Alcorn says many Americans are working longer hours than ever before. Plus, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world without mandated paid parental leave, and our access to affordable childcare is limited. All of these things, Alcorn says, make it very difficult for people to be parents and work at the same time, and this is particularly true for women, as mothers still tend to be the primary caregivers.
“We work longer hours, and we spend more time with our kids,” Alcorn says. “That time has to come from somewhere, and it’s coming from our sleep, leisure time and friendships.”
Meanwhile, a 2015 Harvard study found that the daughters of working mothers tend to be more successful in their own careers. In fact, women raised by working mothers earn 23 percent more than those with stay-at-home moms. And, 33 percent of the daughters of women who worked outside the home hold supervisory positions, as compared to 25 percent of their counterparts from homes with traditional gender roles.
“There is no single policy or practice that can eliminate gender gaps at work and at home. But being raised by a working mother appears to come very close to that,” says Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn, who authored the study. “Women raised by a working mother do better in the workplace, and men raised by a working mother contribute more at home.”
The Harvard study may come as a bitter pill to women who opted out of their own careers in hope that staying home would ultimately benefit their children, only to find out that their kids might have been better off with a working mother. But, Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, says there’s no simple answer to whether it’s better for children to have their mother at home or at the office.
“The most important thing is the relationship the mother has with her child,” Galinsky says. “You can be a wonderful, responsive, attuned parent who has a job, and you could be awful and stay at home.”
What does affect kids, Galinsky says, is how mothers feel about what they’re doing with their lives — whether it be working toward partnership at a law firm or coaching the soccer team and running the household.
“If you’re doing something you fundamentally think is right or wrong, you end up transferring your feelings to your children,” she says. “If you think you should work, cool. If you think it is wrong, it will spill over.”
Assuming your children are with kind and attentive caregivers while you’re at work, Galinsky says that what matters most is your stress level when you come home. Galinsky conducted a survey of children in grades 3 through 12 and asked what one thing they’d want to change about their parents. While the parents predicted the kids would wish for more time with them, Galinsky says the majority of the children said they wish their parents were less stressed and tired.
The takeaway? If you have a job that you find rewarding and you come home feeling happy and energized, your kids will pick up on that. If, on the other hand, you come home angry and exhausted, your mood will impact your children. If you can’t change the things about your job that cause you stress, Galinsky recommends making a conscious effort to be present and happy with your kids.
“If there is anything you can change about your home life to make it better — maybe not walking in with huge to-do list, or just getting on the floor and having snacks with the kids before you whip into your nightly to-do list mode,” she says.
If you choose not to work in order to devote more time to motherhood, Galinsky says it’s important to have an activity that’s just for you. That might mean a volunteer activity related to your former career, or it could be as simple as a book club with your friends. When you take some time for yourself, it’s good for you — and your kids.
“Early research on work and family used to look at ‘role conflict’ and how bad it was,” Galinsky says. “More current research looks at ‘role enhancement,’ and how having more than one thing in your life that you care about is good for you.”
Of course, it would be ideal if we could change American culture to make work and parenthood more compatible. But, when we’re in the trenches, juggling young children and careers, Alcorn says we should do whatever we have to do to get through the day. However, whenever we have the opportunity to take small steps toward changing our own workplace or the broader culture — we should take it.
“It’s about finding ways to advocate for yourself and for other women at work,” Alcorn says. “A rising tide lifts all boats, and we can advocate for each other just by something as simple as not judging someone if they need to leave early to pick up a sick kid.”
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