Let’s Ban Labeling Working Mothers

We all likely know working mothers who have been described as “having it all” or being “superwoman” – these are the women who appear to effortlessly manage work, family, friends and community. I remember my own attempts to “have it all”:  dressed in my work suit, I would go to morning Gymboree with my infant, hand him over to the nanny, go to work, fit in lunch with a friend, and then try to do volunteer work on the weekends between my kids’ soccer games. Oh, and I would wake up at 4 am to exercise. It was exhausting and ridiculous.

I stumbled upon my 5-year business school reunion update which I wrote when I was striving to be promoted to Manager at The Boston Consulting Group while raising my two sons, aged 1 and 3 at the time. I wrote “I am not superwoman by any of stretch of the imagination but I am killing myself trying to be.” In other words, I am really trying to have it all, people. I really, really am. So please don’t judge me for not having it all. Please give me points for trying.

I will be attending my 25th reunion this fall, and with my sons now 23 and 21, and my daughter 18, I feel badly for the woman I was, killing herself trying to be something she was not, and never would be. Why did I put myself through that? Because I thought women were supposed to strive to be superhuman and if we weren’t striving for super powers, then we had no business being an ambitious working mother.

While I would like to think society has evolved 20 years later, recent articles reveal otherwise:

  • A Wall Street Banker Who Literally Has It All, in which we read about a woman who leads the #2 team in a cutthroat industry, spends quality time with her children, and is a competitive runner to boot. I admire and respect her immensely but I can’t help but picture women sighing and saying “How does she do it all and why can’t I do that?”
  • I am a Mediocre Mother and I am OK with It, in which Sallie Krawcheck has the guts to say that she is not superwoman, does the best she can raising her kids, and gives herself a B-/C+ in the motherhood area. While Sallie’s reference to being a mediocre mom is tongue and cheek, women likely find themselves sighing yet again and saying “So if I am not superwoman then I guess I have to settle for being mediocre at something.”  But who wants to be labeled mediocre when she is giving it her all and doing the best she can?

So here is my proposal: let’s stop labeling working mothers altogether. The labels are masked judgments and serve to either put enormous stress on women to maintain a “having it all” lifestyle, or cause feelings of failure for women who gave up trying to be superwoman.

While we have our gender in common, working mothers each have unique circumstances. Our jobs, our kids’ needs, our childcare alternatives, our husbands’ participation in child rearing, our family heritage and culture — the mosaic of these circumstances are different for each woman, and thus present diverse demands and challenges, which influence a woman’s approach to work, family, friends and community. Let’s give working mothers the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are doing the very best they can and making choices that best suit their life’s circumstances. Let’s stop using labels and start showing understanding and compassion.

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