I have two friends in different cities. They don't know each other but they represent opposite sides of the working-mother conundrum.
One is a successful women's and social activist and entrepreneur who puzzles over how she can one day incorporate having children into her busy life. The other is a successful doctor and academic who worries about the impact her workload will have on her ability to raise her three young children.
Like many other women I have spoken to, they talk about their fears in hushed tones, as if the topic is taboo. But shouldn't the conversation about marrying work and motherhood have evolved by now?
It's been almost a year since Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In exhorted women to try harder to get a seat at the table and 25 years since Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung wrote The Second Shift, about the impact of the dual roles on working mothers. Yet the biological ability to bear children continues to be viewed by men and women alike as a professional liability.
Enter Reva Seth, whose new book The MomShift explores the stories of real-life women and how they navigate parenthood and career success. Paradoxically, Ms. Seth focuses on women who often became more successful after they had children. For the most part, the experiences of these women aren't glamorous like Sheryl Sandberg's. Yet the stories she reveals are ones we can relate to and are, frankly, remarkable.
One mother, a senior manager at Deloitte, manages a demanding role at work, while home-schooling her autistic son, a feat that seems nothing short of miraculous. An average day for this senior manager, who has a team of six reporting to her, includes working for three hours from 7:30-10:30 a.m., then spending an hour and a half with her son, and then going back to work for an hour before finishing off schooling her son from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. At 3:30, she puts in another 21/2 hours at work. This makes actress Kate Winslet's recent declaration that working mothers are "heroes" seem a little less far-fetched.
Ms. Seth, who began her career as a lawyer before moving into corporate communications, argues that highlighting the real-life experiences of working mothers – and she interviewed over 500 of them – is vital because the conversation, despite the recent focus on Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, continues to be overly negative. The news media – and many women in their private discussions – dwell on the negative impact of children on work rather than their success stories.
"These are women that we don't hear enough about but whose experience provide a broader range of templates for the different ways that working mothers can set up successful careers," Ms. Seth said. She writes about mothers who have spent time consulting before migrating back to the work force, others who delayed seeking promotions, and even includes examples of how to use maternity leave more strategically.
"We go beyond the idea that a 'successful' career has to look like the model of Sheryl Sandberg or similar," Ms. Seth said, adding that broader market trends and evolving technology will continue to reshape the way we see work.
As a result, working moms will have more choices. Perhaps more important, working dads will have more freedom to be fully engaged partners and will start to emulate some of the same strategies that women use to combine career and family.
Her conclusion is that children and career success are not mutually exclusive and that becoming a mom can spur women on to greater accomplishments. Ms. Seth details instances where women win promotions, earn more money and advance to more senior roles after having children. The experience either encouraged or forced them to take their careers more seriously because of financial need or the push to engage in work that mattered to them. Their limited time forced them to work more efficiently and effectively. Ultimately, motherhood became a confidence booster, forcing them out of their comfort zones.
These are the kinds of stories we need to keep telling each other and the broader professional community. Then maybe, just maybe, the working mother naysayers will lighten up and we can have a more balanced discussion about an issue that is critical to our future productivity and well-being.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org