The End of Mom Guilt

Why a mother’s ambition is good for her family

illustration of blue office chair with baby pacifier–shaped seat on pink background
Katie Martin

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

There was a drawer in a cabinet in my bedroom where my mother kept the congratulatory cards she’d received after I was born. When I was little, I liked to take them out and look at them.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the May 2022 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

My favorite card had a drawing of a mother and child. The mother’s soft white arms cradled the baby to her bosom. Her pretty profile—delicate nose, long-lashed eyes—was focused entirely on the small, sleeping bundle. She had lustrous golden hair that rippled and encircled the baby. She had created a world just for the two of them.

My actual mother was nothing like this woman. My mother’s hair was dark, almost black, cut short in the same no-nonsense style for decades. Her skin was olive, and her arms were naturally sinewy. Her embraces were quick and hard, her eyes focused on the next task in front of her. I never doubted that my mother loved me or that I was important to her, but I rarely felt the radiant force that I imagined the child on the card experiencing: undivided and all-encompassing maternal attention. It just wasn’t possible. In addition to having three other children, my mother had a full-time job, as a psychiatrist.

So why did the card hold such sway over me? Why does it still? Four decades later, I can readily call up the image and the feelings it evoked: a nostalgic longing for something that I never experienced but that I felt sure existed for other children.

I believed I knew such a mother growing up. Gretchen was the mother of my childhood best friend, Tamara. In my child’s-eye view, Gretchen was everything my mother was not. She was always home, it seemed, baking a pie or sewing an exquisite doll’s dress. Gretchen wasn’t a doctor—she was married to one.

She seemed impossibly perfect, and it was hard not to make invidious comparisons. Tamara’s Halloween costumes were works of art; everyone exclaimed over them. One year, I wanted to be a tiger for Halloween, in honor of the stuffed animal I carried everywhere. When I asked my mother to make me that costume, we were standing in my little sister’s room, which was in the process of being redone as she transitioned from a crib to a bed. My mother gestured to a roll of yellow-and-white-striped wallpaper that was lying on the ground. “Why don’t you just wrap yourself up in some of that?” she suggested.

Was Gretchen the icon of motherhood I had believed her to be—the ever-nurturing, always-present mother on the card? Tamara moved away from Philadelphia before eighth grade, and we did not keep in touch. When I typed her mother’s name into Google several years ago, I was wholly unprepared for what I found. Gretchen was a professor emerita of international education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a co-author of 10 books, and an internationally recognized expert on education reform.

With some trepidation, I cut-and-pasted her email address and started typing. “Dear Gretchen,” I wrote. “This request may seem bizarre, but I am writing to see if I can interview you.” I wasn’t sure if she would even remember me. She replied with a kind note assuring me that she did and asking that I send her the topics I wanted to cover. I responded with a long list, like a lawyer probing a witness. “I have very particular memories of you,” I wrote, “but I don’t know if they are real.”

My memories, it turned out, were both real and not real. The whole time I had been friends with Tamara, Gretchen had been pursuing a doctorate in education. She came from a family of academics; her father was a well-known economist at MIT. Her mother had a bachelor’s degree in economics but stayed at home. “That’s where I learned all the crafty stuff,” she told me over Zoom. “She was always knitting and jamming and preserving and making cookies. But I think she was very frustrated with that life.”

In 1968, shortly after receiving her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Gretchen met her husband, Milt, who was a medical student. They were married the following year. Gretchen was 24. She gave birth to their first daughter, Dara, in 1971, and Tamara followed in 1974.

“I think I was a pretty good stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I did what was expected of me, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to do something for myself.” In 1977, when Dara was 6 and Tamara was 3, she returned to Penn to get her Ph.D.

After a stint as an adjunct professor, Gretchen decided she wanted to teach full-time at a university. When she learned that UMass was hiring for a tenure-track position in its graduate department of education, she said, “it sent shivers up and down my spine. It was like they wrote the position for me.” But Milt had a thriving career as a professor of medicine and had no intention of moving. Gretchen took the job anyway. She spent the first semester splitting her week between the two cities, trying to make things work. Then she gave up. “It was all very rational,” she said. “We did the divorce ourselves and divided everything up equally.” Tamara moved to Amherst with Gretchen after seventh grade; Dara stayed in Philadelphia with Milt.

I now understood that Gretchen was more like my own mother than I ever could have guessed. They were both conflicted strivers, acceding to and struggling against convention. But the lengths Gretchen took to follow her ambition—she prefers to call it her “longing for achievement”—made her even more of an outlier. To pursue her career, she left behind her marriage, her home, a daughter.

The women of my generation were told that we wouldn’t have to make the stark choice Gretchen ultimately did: family or career. And yet as I listened to Gretchen tell her story, I recognized my own experience in it.

I’m a criminal-defense lawyer, a law professor, and a mother of two. When my children were young and I was offered professional opportunities that separated me from them—a case hundreds of miles from home, an academic presentation out of state—I took them. The work gave shape and purpose to my life. And yet. Because time is finite, deficits added up on the other side of the ledger. I missed family dinners, birthday parties, and, yes, Halloween. My ambition was also a source of tension with my husband, Matt. We fought about my preoccupation with my career and my feeling that he was failing to support me in its pursuit.

Eventually, my devotion to my work proved incompatible with my marriage. Like Gretchen, I had the financial security to strike out on my own and start a new life. But that did little to dull the heartbreak of the split. I came to feel that ambition and motherhood were no more compatible in the second decade of the 21st century than they’d been in the 1970s. The mother on the card, and all that she represented, still had a powerful hold over me.

It didn’t help that my approach to parenting was scattered and slapdash. None of my children’s friends mistook me for a happy homemaker. For a time, this was a source of guilt. Gradually, though, I came to a different view. For all of my failures at home ec, I knew my son and daughter felt loved, just as I had felt loved by my own ambitious mother. That recognition led me, in turn, to wonder why for so long I’d thought of ambition as antithetical to good mothering. Prioritizing your career—not all the time, but some of the time—models valuable lessons for children, including independence and resilience.

Research shows that the children of full-time working mothers fare no worse than the children of stay-at-home mothers. A 2018 study of more than 100,000 people across 29 countries found that the daughters of working mothers were more successful in their own careers than the daughters of stay-at-home mothers, and just as happy. For sons, there was no discernible effect on their professional lives, although sons of working moms performed more housework in their own marriages and reported more egalitarian views on gender.

One grown son of a full-time working mother described parenthood to me as “sliding weights from one end of the scale to the other; family to work, work to family, with rare times in perfect balance.” A perfect balance is wonderful when you can strike it. But periods of imbalance are healthy and necessary, too. They demonstrate to children that the burdens and sacrifices of caregiving should not be a mother’s to bear alone, and help them understand why mothers can’t always lavish them with undivided attention.

My kids have at times resented my commitment to my career. They were 11 and 9 in March 2020, and if there were benefits to the three of us spending every day together in the early months of the pandemic, they were not immediately obvious to any of us. Once, when I was on a video call with a judge and a passel of lawyers, my daughter opened the refrigerator door behind me, exposing its contents to everyone, then scolded me for forgetting to buy maple syrup. It felt—it was—profoundly unprofessional. I missed the quiet and privacy of my own space.

Yet there were unexpected upsides to having my kids routinely peering over my shoulder and popping up in the background. They came to understand what I do, and why I do it. My clients and colleagues, meanwhile, glimpsed the life I lead away from court and the classroom—they saw why I cannot always be at their disposal either.

The feminism of my mother’s generation was rightly focused on equal pay at work; eradicating the abuses that drove women out of the workforce or caused them to switch to lower-paying, part-time work; and, eventually, equal division of labor at home. That project is far from complete. But feminism today must be about more than these structural changes. We have to redefine what it means to be a good mother.

The truth is that motherhood is as beautiful as it looks on the congratulations cards, but it can also be a mess. It’s important to be honest about this. No real change is possible until working mothers stop trying to be all things to all people—perfect at work, perfect as partners, and perfect as mothers, with each role kept entirely separate. Rather than hermetically sealing motherhood off from workplace struggles and triumphs, women should embrace the seepage between their worlds. For themselves, but also for their sons and daughters.

I am keenly aware that my own experience of motherhood does not resemble that of most women. But over the past few years, I’ve talked with dozens of women of different races, classes, and sexual orientations, and I’ve found that the desire to square ambition with motherhood is widely shared.

Daphne LaSalle Jackson is an Air Force lieutenant colonel and judge advocate general. When she had her first son, in 2013, she was part of a team of defense lawyers representing Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Guantánamo Bay detainee accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole. The military refused to let her bring her son to Cuba, but Daphne did bring her breast pump, determined not to give up the case. “I pumped in the detention facility, I pumped on airplanes, I pumped in between client meetings,” she told me.

Daphne now has three children. She is an attentive and frighteningly efficient mother. The first time we talked, on FaceTime, she was in the middle of changing her daughter’s diaper. She answered my questions as she finished up, kissed her husband and two sons goodbye, got into her minivan, and drove to nearby Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Advancement in the military has continued to require that Daphne leave her family behind for long stretches, including, most recently, for an eight-month deployment to Qatar, where she had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to say goodnight to her kids by Zoom. Seizing such opportunities has never been easy. But she’s kept saying yes, for herself but also for her kids. “Their whole lives, they have seen me get up every day and put on a uniform,” she told me. “They know the power of their mom. They see my sacrifice and my dedication to my country.” She has been determined to set an example for other women in the Air Force as well: “I wanted to be that mentor, that Black face in a sea of white faces, a female face in a sea of nonfemale faces.”

I also talked with a woman named Diana, who immigrated to California from Vietnam when she was 15. Enrolled at a large public high school, she learned English by carrying a heavy dictionary in her backpack and looking up the words she didn’t know. She also watched every episode of Friends.

After high school, Diana married her high-school sweetheart and began working as an aesthetician at a salon. “I worked and worked,” she told me, “double- and triple-booked sometimes, and even if a client came in 15 minutes before closing, my boss would say, ‘Take them,’ so I was always coming home late.” The hourly pay was meager, but the tips made up for it; Diana earned about $130 a day.

For years, she managed to get by. But around the time her children were 10 and 12, her job became untenable. Her boss told her that she had to work as a receptionist two days a week as well as open and close the salon. The additional labor meant longer hours and fewer clients. “Every day when I came home, I was so tired; I was like a dead body,” she said.

An opportunity arose in 2018. One of Diana’s customers owned a hair salon nearby. The aesthetician who had rented the back room had recently retired; the space was now empty. Diana, mindful that her co-workers might overhear, bent down and whispered in the woman’s ear, “Can I go there and take a look?”

When Diana came home from work that night, she was bubbling with enthusiasm. “I just knew that this was my opportunity, and I know my clients are loyal and they will come with me.” But her husband, she said, saw only risk. “He keeps saying to me, what if I fail? I told him, ‘I am confident; I feel like I can do it.’ ” He responded by telling Diana to try to negotiate better terms with her boss at the salon. Diana refused. After years of making concessions to her family, it was time to take a stand. “A few days later,” she said, “he is thinking it over and he says, ‘You know what? If that makes you happy, you can just go for it.’ And I said, ‘Thank you. Finally.’ ”

In the weeks leading up to her departure from her job, Diana let her clients know of her plans. Though she never offered it, many clients asked for her cellphone number. Soon after she opened her own business, her phone started ringing. “My kids would get so excited every time a client called for an appointment at the new place. It made me feel so good.” She looked joyful as she told me this story. Her children had seen, and appreciated, the fruit of her ambition.

Of course, successes like Diana’s remain too rare, and they can be fleeting. The pandemic has changed what work looks like for tens of millions of Americans, many of them women. In its earliest months, the coronavirus drove 3.5 million mothers from the workplace, as jobs vanished in female-dominated industries like retail and hospitality. One of them was Diana’s; she was forced to stop seeing clients. Her husband’s part-time income was not enough to support them, and only by digging deeply into savings Diana had set aside was the family able to stay afloat. But Diana has since reopened her business. When I caught up with her in February, she told me she’s busier than ever.

This essay has been adapted from Lara Bazelon’s book, Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids. It appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “The End of Mom Guilt.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.