When I was in pre-K, each parent was responsible for bringing in some sort of treat once per school year for the entire class. Hard at work at the nearby hospital, my mother, a practicing pathologist for many years, completely forgot about this parental duty by the time my day rolled around. Remembering just a few hours beforehand and not having the time nor the know-how to bake, she ran to our local grocery store, bought a few boxes of cookies, threw them in some containers, shook them around a little bit and passed them off as homemade. My mom always finishes telling this story by reminding her listeners that she was one of only two working mothers in my pre-K class — and that was why she couldn’t be as involved. However, by pursuing her career throughout my childhood, my mom did more for me than she could ever have done by staying home. Broadly speaking, the choice between having a career and being a loving, caring parent is a false one: Working professionals — specifically, working mothers — are just as capable of raising bright and well-adjusted children.
My mom, like many other working mothers, sometimes feels guilty that she wasn’t home more when I was younger. In a major study, Harvard researchers found that working mothers “often internalize social messages of impending doom for their children.” Many harmful stereotypes about working mothers — including the ideas that they don’t pay enough attention to family, they are unreliable or their children end up resenting them — specifically reinforce this feeling. It’s time these antiquated ideas come to face reality.
It’s true that many of my fondest childhood memories are with a caregiver I had for many years — not my mother or my father — and I spent a lot of time reading, watching Cyberchase and playing Club Penguin alone. While it might have been nice to do many of these activities with my mother, her absence didn’t severely damage me. It didn’t even come close. She had her own career to focus on, one that she had put decades of work into and was passionate about. She was still a meaningful part of my life: She’d cook dinner and eat with me, take me to birthday parties on weekends and work so that I was able to have food on the table, wear new clothes each school year and eventually go to the college of my choice.
Studies have shown that having a working mother can actually benefit young girls. According to Kathleen McGinn, a Harvard Business School professor who has conducted research about working mothers, “there are very few things that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother.” Her findings, which hold true across 24 countries, demonstrate that women with working mothers are more likely to have jobs themselves and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full-time. In addition, children of women who work more than 35 hours per week are more likely to pursue higher education. Further, there seem to be no differences in behavior among teenage children of working mothers versus those of stay-at-home moms. A study by Silvia Mendolia, an economics lecturer at Australia’s University of Wollongong, found that a mother’s decision to work has no effect on her teenage children’s self-esteem, likelihood of dropping out of high school, satisfaction with life or propensity to smoke. It seems that children of mothers who work a lot actually turn out just fine.
Of course, there are plenty of scenarios in which having a stay-at-home parent makes complete sense. My parents were lucky enough that they could afford childcare for me, but many are not. Having siblings can add to the equation (I’m an only child), and some children have certain needs that make it necessary to have a parent at home. However, in my mother’s position, continuing to work after I was born was the best choice she could have made for me. Often, people say that they stopped working or worked less because they had their child’s best interests at heart. That’s exactly the reason my mom kept working so hard.
My mom inspires me so much. She’s extremely competent and has achieved so much in a male-dominated field. It’s no surprise that working mothers are role models who motivate their children to follow suit. My mom exemplifies so much of what I hope to be, and I’m so thankful that she continued to work. Watching her work hard and pursue her passions is what inspires me to work hard and pursue my own.
Lena Renshaw ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.