Our Conversations about Working Moms Have Got it All Wrong

Working mothers are not a problem

Every couple of years, a new study comes along asking the age-old question, are working mothers good for children?

Such studies all have encouraging statistics about empathy and girls' future paychecks and sons who do more chores (so...yay).

But c'mon...do we really need to prove this? Of course working mothers are good for kids! They earn paychecks (in 40 percent of households, potentially the only paycheck). They put roofs over heads. They put things like, you know, food on the table. In what universe could that possibly be not good for kids?

Nobody ever feels the need to prove this about dads. Every dad is a hero for earning a paycheck. And guess what - turns out he's a hero for staying home, too. Yet women can't catch a break for doing either.

Here's the thing: at a time when the unemployment rate is in single digits and skills are in demand, we need working mothers to be both moms...and employees. Yet a third of women are opting out.

So how about, instead of asking whether mothers are heroes or villains, we consider a few questions we should be asking:

Why is it that working moms who want to work can't?

One of society's little predispositions is to saddle women with all the family responsibilities even when they're the primary breadwinner at work.  The Mental Load is heavy and weighs down careers. We need to make it easier for women to share the load by making it culturally ok for men to pick up their share, too.

Why do really accomplished women think it's easier to opt out after a baby than stick around?

The above (the Mental Load) is one reason. Motherhood penalties - such as being denied coveted responsibilities after a baby - is another. Overall inflexibility is a third. We spend a lot of time in this country talking about leave. We need to spend an equal amount of time talking about how to effectively support careers when women return to work.

What can we do to make it easier for women to work?

For starters - make it possible. We need to recognize that nursing is fact of life and needs to be accommodated in a space other than a broom closets. We also need to address the obstacles. The Washington Post says lack of access to quality child care has impacted more than three quarters of women's career choices.

How can we make women's choices ok?

This is the million-dollar question. For some reason, every study showing how working moms are great for kids does so at the expense of stay-at-home moms. The URL for one such story was, "working moms better kids." The secret to success either at home or at work is support. When women feel good about their choice - either choice - they do well at it. That's true for men, too. We need to make those choices OK.

This is not merely a personal problem. The one part of the "are working moms good for kids?" question that needs no data is role modeling; showing tomorrow's women how it's done. That's what makes the next generation think it's possible. And with women such a vital part of the workforce, we need a good percentage of those girls to grow up wanting to work - and an equal percentage of men willing and able to support them.

Tomorrow's women need to see working motherhood as a viable option. Girls and boys need those role models. How can we make that happen?

That's the question we should be asking.

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.