The Quest to Find Realistic Role Models for Working Mothers

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Superstar moms can be more intimidating than inspiring. Where are the relatable examples of women who manage both children and successful careers?

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Uber-achieving working mothers like Marissa Mayer (left) and Sheryl Sandberg (right) can provide more discouragement than inspiration for many parents. (AP Images)

After her second son was born, Nada Arnot was recruited from NBC to become the Chief Digital Officer at a top PR and marketing agency. Two years later, she was recruited again—this time to become the Vice President of Marketing for Kaplan.

Sound seamless? It wasn't. "Careers are rarely linear, but especially for women with children," she told me in an interview. "During my career 'pauses,' I reflected on my next set of goals and then actively developed the skills I would need to get there. That said, the interruptions were stressful. But I think that's normal and women who feel the same should know they are not alone."

Sharon Edmondson, meanwhile, got married at 18 and worked her way up to her current role as Vice President, Human Resources, for the Americas at Regus, where she manages more than 3,000 employees. She's also the mother of four kids. As her career began to accelerate, her husband and their extended family began to take on greater roles in their home and family life. "I also realized that, contrary to what I had previously thought, more seniority would actually allow me greater control over my life," Edmondson said, "and so I began to strategically pursue advancement opportunities."

Allison O'Kelly went from Harvard Business School to auditing firm KPMG, followed by the fast-track management program at Toys R Us. Then she had children. "It wasn't the hours that got to me, it was the inability to control when and where I worked those hours," she said. So O'Kelly started her own practice focused on strategic planning, accounting, and tax services for small businesses. Today, Allison is the mother of three, and the consulting practice has become Mom Corps, a professional staffing firm with over 17 franchises throughout the U.S.

Unlike Sheryl Sandberg (the COO of Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo), Arnot, Edmonson, and O'Kelly are not household names (not yet, anyway). But it's their stories, and those of the thousands of others like them, that working mothers, recent graduates, employers, and male colleagues all need to hear more of: relatable women from a diverse range of professional and personal backgrounds, successfully navigating career and family in a variety of different ways. It's the only way to change the current cultural framework of children as incompatible with professional success and the negative outcomes associated with generally accepted beliefs (from mothers being less likely to be hired, to facing a continued wage gap, to still being regularly overlooked when it comes to advancement opportunities).

Yes, the Sandbergs and Mayers of the world are hugely inspiring—for both men and women, and for parents and non-parents. But they are also career outliers—meaning that they are so incredibly successful that their stories can be more intimidating than helpful.

I know from personal experience. Seven years ago, I discovered I was, unexpectedly (and unintentionally), three months pregnant. Amidst the conflicting emotions was the sense that my career was over. I had recently left my job at a national law firm. It wasn't because of family or work-life balance issues but for simpler reasons: I knew I was never going to be a very good or happy lawyer.

Instead, I moved to the UK and switched into public relations. This meant I was now pregnant, in an entry-level position, and earning pennies on the dollar compared to my last role. But I was determined that my baby wasn't going to grow up with a mother who felt frustrated or resentful about the interesting and fulfilling career dreams she had given up—although I wasn't quite sure what I should do to prevent this. I was a victim of what author Chiamanda Adichie describes in her TED talk as the dangers of a "single story": the mass acceptance of a dominant narrative that then perpetuates and fulfills itself. In this case, that "single story" was the time-honored belief that, barring superstardom (think Hollywood celebrities with their post-baby "best bodies ever!") or political and corporate elite status, children are essentially incompatible with career success.

While impressive and inspirational stories are certainly just that, I wasn't alone in my desire for role models that were more accessible and relatable to my own issues and career. A nationwide internal survey by Deloitte Canada found that women overwhelmingly wanted to hear more about workable templates for their lives and careers—that is, practical advice and ideas from other women at the same life stage on how to raise a family and continue to move their careers forward.

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Reva Seth is the mother of three boys. Her second book, The MomShift: Finding The Opportunity In Maternity, Positive Stories of Post Baby Career Success will be published by Random House in January 2014.

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