In This Corner: Tiger Mother vs. Mrs. Cleaver

Today's installment of "woman v woman" comes courtesy of the New York Times.

Last week's health section featured a column by Jane Brody with a practical look at breastfeeding, specifically the health benefits vs. challenges, especially for working mothers.

The comments section featured a number of responses like this:

"If you have sixty to eighty years to live and can't take off (or slack off) for a year or two to stay with your child then what kind of life have you chosen to live?"

This of course is the flipside to the "having it all" debate that says women are underachievers if they're not running multi-national companies while raising Tiger children, sowing organic vegetables, and crafting centerpieces out of tree sap and pine cones.

To which I say: Can we stop having this conversation? Sheesh why all the judging? I'm personally as weary of those who would label working mothers as neglectful as I am of the de facto quantification of "success" as if it only applies to women with a Marissa-Mayer caliber of career. We're either bad mothers or not women enough. Why do our choices have to be right or wrong?

The Contentment Factor - or "All" is What You Make It

My personal "all" has fluctuated over the years from full-time employee, to part-time work-at-home mom, to full-time, stay-at-home mom. I'm proud of every stage, yet in each someone would point out I was either "lucky you don't mind that you're not a strong role model" or "fortunate you're not bothered by leaving your children with strangers" (actual comments).  But I also got to marvel at women who embraced their choices - and as a result, the choices of others - with confidence and a sense of humor.  Those women showed me that "all" is what you make it; that great mothering doesn't come from any particular work status, but from contentment. And that contentment comes from pursuing your "all," whatever that may be. And, today, with two almost-grown daughters and their community of almost-grown classmates in my rearview mirror, I'm happy to say that I see no discernible line of success between the children of mothers who drove carpools and those who drove commutes.

"All" We Really Need

And before we continue beating ourselves up over our ability to do it all, let's remember that "all," isn't a test of character it's a physics problem: 2 places + 1 time / cloning = futile. Even the estimable Ms. Mayer will have to make choices. "All" implies that you're spending 100% of your time in all places - at work, with children, with a partner, and on personal pursuits. Last I checked that's 400% impossible unless the geniuses in Silicon Valley actually locate the rift in the time-space continuum. Sacrifice is part of everything that involves choice you give up a great job in Seattle because home is in Boston. A colleague of mine very wisely noted that dads don't get off scot free in the "all" debate: they're just socialized better to accept the tradeoffs.

Instead of hammering each other (or ourselves), let's focus on the important stuff - help from the folks at the top. Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I work for a company that makes supporting employees its business. But having once worked for a boss whose definition of "family emergency" required proof of loss of limbs (and even then!), I have a personal point of reference for how much actual support means - especially for those who don't have a choice in the work/life equation. Ask any working mother here and she'll tell you - it's the foil wrap that holds the work/life sandwich together. And that's what we should be fighting for - as opposed to against each other.

And can we please jettison any more quantifiable judgments of "correct" or "all?" Shouldn't the real question be, "Can you have what you want?" That question is personal and unquantifiable. It leaves room for my "all," and yours, and Ms. Mayer's, without declaring a definition of the proper quotient of achievement. Semantics? Maybe. But in the ever-heated controversy of woman v woman, stay-at-home v career, role model v different kind of role model, semantics may just help answer the question - and save our sisterhood.  

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.