By Lara Bazelon
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In this captivating and radical look at “work-life balance,” Lara Bazelon reframes our understanding of working women—and shows how prioritizing your career benefits mothers, kids, and society at large.
In this singular cultural moment, mothers have unparalleled opportunities to succeed at work while continuing to face the same societal impediments that held back our mothers and grandmothers. We still encounter entrenched gender bias in the workplace and are expected to shoulder the lion’s share of labor and burdens at home while being made to feel as if we’re never doing enough. All the while we’re told that the perfect work-life balance is possible, if only we try hard enough to achieve it.
It’s time to change the conversation—about work, life, and “balance.” Work and life are inextricably, intimately intertwined. We need to celebrate what we do give our children—even and especially in moments of imbalance—rather than apologizing for what we don’t. In this way, we can model for our children how we use our talents to help others and raise awareness about the issues closest to our hearts. We can embrace the personal fulfillment and financial independence that pursuing meaningful work can bring as a way of showing our children how to live happy, purpose-driven lives. Bazelon argues not only that we can but that we should. Being ambitious at work and being a good mother to our children are not at odds—these qualities mutually reinforce each other.
Backed up by research and filled with personal stories from Bazelon’s life, as well as that of her mother and the many other women she interviewed across the cultural and financial spectrum, Ambitious Like a Mother is an anthem, a beacon for all to recognize and celebrate the pioneering women who reject the false idols of the Selfless Mother and Work-Life Balance, and a call to embrace your own ambitions and model your multiplicities for your children.
My mother once told me, “Never be at the financial mercy of anyone else.”
More than any other advice she gave me, it stuck.
Throughout her life, my mother worked. She never stopped. Not after having my sister Emily in 1971. Or me in 1974. Not after finishing her medical residency in 1975. Not after having my sister Jill in 1976, and not after having a fourth child, my sister Dana, in 1979.
My mother worked to be independent. She worked so that she would have an identity outside of her marriage and her four children. She worked because it made her happy. She worked to be free from the ever-present stress and misery of the near poverty that defined her childhood. She worked to set an example for her four daughters.
And she did. All four of us went to college and graduate school. We are all mothers who work full-time.
My mother lost her father when she was three. He died of a heart attack early in the morning on February 17, 1948. He was thirty-one. “It was completely shocking,” she said, “and devastating.” An engineer with the Department of the Navy, he had been the family’s sole breadwinner. My mother’s mother, Edith, was left alone to raise a toddler. She had no savings, no job, and no money aside from her husband’s five-thousand-dollar life insurance policy.
The next two decades of my grandmother’s life were marked by her struggling to make ends meet while battling severe anxiety and depression. She could no longer afford the rent for the New Jersey apartment she had shared with her late husband and had no choice but to move with my mother to Baltimore to live with her parents, with whom she had a contentious relationship. Even when my grandmother could finally afford a small garden apartment in a nearby neighborhood, she and my mother shared a bedroom. That remained true until my mother left for college. Edith worried constantly about money, at times relying on her younger sister and brother-in-law for support.
My grandmother had a college degree, but in the late 1940s, the options for women—particularly women with small children—were limited: teacher, nurse, secretary. After substitute teaching for months, she found work as a middle-school English teacher in a Baltimore public school. Her students’ previous education had been severely lacking and they struggled with the curriculum. Edith was frustrated by the way that the system had failed them and her; she was grossly underpaid—as most teachers at that time were and continue to be today. From June through September, when school was out, she had no salary at all. Her dream of living a middle-class life with a husband and a houseful of children behind a white picket fence had shattered. She went through bouts of depression and repeatedly threatened suicide. “Not having money drove her crazy,” my mother said, “and she could not adjust to her life.”
In response, my mother focused on her education. She skipped two grades and got a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a prestigious all-women’s school, where she was premed. It was 1961, and she was sixteen years old. A few months later, she met my father—her first and only serious boyfriend. Toward the end of college, she began applying to medical school. Her mother and grandparents advised against it. “They told me I would never get married because no man would want me if I had a career.” She ignored them. My father was not put off. Several months into her first year of medical school, he proposed. They were engaged on New Year’s Eve 1965 and got married six months later; my mother was twenty-one, my father, twenty-three.
Getting married did nothing to stop my mother’s ambition. “We had a saying at Bryn Mawr,” she told me: “Only failures only get married.” From 1966 to 1969, she and my father, a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, lived in a basement apartment next to a country club. My dad was an avid tennis player but he wasn’t allowed on the courts; the club barred Jews from admission. But, as my mother pointed out, they couldn’t have afforded it anyway. Instead, their lives revolved around school and homework. In 1970, my mother graduated from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. First in her class.
The more I dug into my mother’s story—over hours of interviews spanning more than a year—the more it became clear that my father’s role, and their relationship, were complicated and complicating factors in her success. On the one hand, my father was supportive of my mother’s professional aspirations, which was relatively unusual for their generation. On their first date, at the Bryn Mawr College Inn, my mom, seventeen, told my dad, nineteen, she was going to be a doctor. He said, “I thought it was great. It showed ambition. It showed determination. It showed wanting to do something that was important and useful. It showed independence.”
On the other hand, my father made it clear that for the marriage to work, my mother needed to make sure their kids were fed, dressed, and transported to various activities, dinner was on the table on time, and the house was clean. In figuring out that logistical equation, she was mostly on her own. She outsourced the housecleaning and some of the cooking and childcare; we had housekeepers and a babysitter who worked full-time for my family for more than a decade. But my mother also drove the Hebrew school carpool and took us to the pediatrician, the dentist, and—three of us—the orthodontist. She brought cupcakes to school on our birthdays. (Back then, sugary treats in the classroom were still legal.)
Of course, growing up in my parents’ house, I was aware of this dynamic. For all of us to thrive, or even function, my mother had to treat the domestic sphere as a second job—and that meant she worked very hard and seemingly nonstop. What I didn’t understand until I started writing this book was the sacrifices she made continuously along the way. Some of those sacrifices were professional. Some were personal. My mother spent decades plagued by guilt that she was shortchanging her daughters and her patients. As an ambitious mother, she experienced a peculiar kind of loneliness, part of which stemmed from the decision to keep her angst private for fear of inviting further judgment.
I think of my mother as a pioneer. Still, her story isn’t one of linear triumph. She succeeded within the constraints of a marriage that was, at its core, conventional. Her success required yielding: her leisure time, her emotional energy, and some of her aspirations. “I had almost no close friends when you were growing up,” she told me. “I never had time, I could never have lunch with anyone, and I felt that Nana [her mother] and Gamma [my dad’s mom] disapproved of me. Dad wasn’t discouraging as long as it didn’t interfere with him.” I asked if she resented my dad, who returned late in the evenings from his law firm, regularly worked weekends, and, as far as I could remember, had never cooked a family meal. She said, “Would it have been nice if Dad had been around more? Of course. But that’s not Dad. He was never going to be different than who he was.”
Although my mother’s chosen profession of medicine made her unusual for her time, her story is not unique. Countless working mothers have found joy and fulfillment as well as a vital means of security in their careers. But nearly the same number have felt lonely and suffered quietly from guilt, shame, and the fear that what they wanted for themselves in the workplace was at odds with being a good mother.
It isn’t. Professional success is emotionally fulfilling. It is also liberating. It allows us to be role models, to show our children that by pursuing our dreams and ambitions, we are strong, independent, and eminently capable. Think of how much more free and joyful women’s lives could be if they accepted this truth: their work benefits themselves and their children. But the truth is a hard sell because it runs counter to how we have constructed and enforced gender norms, particularly when it comes to child-rearing. It is vital that we accept—and tell—this truth now.
Millennial and Generation Z women need to hear this message. We know, having lived through the Great Recession of 2008 and now COVID-19, the worst pandemic in a century, that economic circumstances can shift abruptly and for the worse. A partner’s once solid job can evaporate. Seemingly perfect marital unions can fall apart. Opting out—the much-buzzed-about term to describe wealthy women with elite credentials who chose to leave the workforce to raise children in the early aughts—simply isn’t an option for most American women.1 And that includes some of the women who thought it was.2 Many of them discovered, years later, that the choice not to work was economically and emotionally unsustainable.
For some of us, work means having the economic freedom to leave unhappy relationships or radically reframe them, to weather divorces, economic downturns, disease, and even widowhood, knowing we can provide for ourselves and our children. That freedom is integral to our ability to be good mothers.
But we don’t say so in polite company.
The truth—that striving for success in the workplace has the potential to make women better mothers, not worse ones—remains controversial. It challenges the enduring belief that a “good mother” is a woman who subordinates her own desires to her children’s needs. It contradicts stereotypes of what is considered acceptable feminine behavior: being modest, self-effacing, and deferential.
As an ambitious working mother of two young children with multiple professional identities—law professor/litigator/writer—I have found myself judged. Some of that judgment is externally imposed; some of it is self-directed. As a young mother, when I was offered a professional opportunity that separated me from my children—a trip out of state to give an academic presentation, a sought-after writer’s residency to finish a book, a legal battle to exonerate a client incarcerated hundreds of miles away—I took it. These opportunities were stepping-stones, yes, but they also fed my brain, which was always hungry for new ideas and professional engagement. They fed my soul—there is nothing as exhilarating and life-affirming as watching the prison gates open and an innocent person walk free, knowing that I played a part in making that happen.
And yet. Because time is finite, the deficits add up on the other side of the ledger. My choices inevitably meant I was less available to my children. One could argue my choices cost me my marriage. What kind of example is that? For more than a decade I struggled with these questions, agonized over them, sought an escape route that would free me from my guilt, shame, and conviction that I was a Bad Mother. For years, I raced like a mouse in a maze in search of the work-life balance finish line that would signal that I had found my way out. I ran and ran, believing that if I rebounded from the dead ends and survived the booby traps, I would arrive in this magical Eden.
But there is no such place. The Work-Life Balance and the Selfless Mother are false gods. I wrote this book in the hope that it will convince you to stop chasing the same mirage and punishing yourselves for failing to attain the impossible. I wrote this book as a resource, a refuge, and a source of reassurance. It isn’t selfish to want to feed your brain or your soul. It isn’t wrong to think that doing so requires something more than being a mother. It isn’t detrimental to focus on the ability to support yourself or your children or to make sacrifices early on for the flexibility that comes with rising higher in your field or having more professional choices.
Quite the opposite. Choosing professional opportunities, prioritizing your career—not all the time, but some of the time—models valuable lessons for your children, including independence, resilience, and the importance of using one’s talents and abilities to help other people. Nor need these choices come at the expense of a marriage if a woman chooses her life partner with these truths in mind. There is no glide path to nirvana; there is instead a bumpy road of everyday beauty and mess. Mothers shouldn’t go it alone; we should bring our families (in all of their iterations) and our partners (in all of their iterations) as we stride forth, clear and confident about our value and purpose in life.
Recently, a former standout student of mine, newly married, asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for a competitive position. After I sent it off, she wrote to thank me. Referring to a New York Times op-ed I had written in 2019 about women and ambition,3 she said, “Your article… was the first time I had ever been told that it was ok to prioritize my work. Hearing that I could be both a (future) mother and a passionate lawyer was so incredibly liberating.” She concluded, “Thank you for empowering me and showing a generation of young women that we don’t have to settle.” Reading her note, I blinked back tears. I also thought, If only someone had said those words to twenty-something-year-old me.
Now, when American women are both empowered and imperiled as never before, it is important to tell this truth. Ambitious Like a Mother delves into the lives of ambitious, economically independent working mothers who are raising happy, healthy kids—my mother’s story, my own, and that of so many others. This book is a call to tell our stories out loud and with pride. It is a call to put the antiquated trope that ambitious women are selfish, aggressive bitches in the junk heap of history where it belongs. And it is a call to stop trapping professional working mothers in a cycle of shame and self-recrimination by demanding that they squash their ambition, hide it, or sacrifice it.
We need to change the conversation. Too many women face the same impediments to success that confronted our mothers and grandmothers. Entrenched gender bias in the workplace, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the “motherhood penalty,”4 presents barriers to advancement. For women of color, these threats and inequities are compounded by deep-seated racial biases and stereotypes. We live in a political climate where targeted legal assaults on our reproductive rights are the norm, posing a threat to our ability to control our bodies. At home, we face additional stresses and burdens; we’re expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the labor while being made to feel as if we still aren’t doing enough. The COVID-19 pandemic, which drove women out of the workforce in record numbers, laid bare the reality that one sidestep in the performance of this high-wire act sends many of us into free fall with no social safety net to catch us.
Data shows that one-third of households are headed by single women5 and that in most two-parent households, both parents must work to make ends meet.6 Whether women work by necessity or out of love of the job or some combination, they are entitled to equal pay and opportunities for advancement. They deserve to live in a world that is responsive to the complexities of their lives as mothers who are also human beings with needs—financial and emotional—that cannot be satisfied solely by mothering.
Of course, there has been progress, most recently with #MeToo, steadily rising numbers of women reaching the apex of their professions, and more parity with male partners in the domestic sphere.7 But for the most part, society has refused to put working women on an equal footing with working men. And so working women have been stuck. Many professions are still tied to a centuries-old model designed for men with wives at home to take care of the house and the children: early-morning to late-afternoon hours in the workplace with little or no flexibility. In some ways, it has gotten worse; with advances in technology comes the reality that no one is ever more than a text or an e-mail away from work. Before the pandemic, most jobs demanded a strict nine-to-five in person and then more work at home on nights and weekends.8
This is not a book that advocates for women to accept these strictures or work themselves to the bone as a prerequisite of being ambitious. It is a book that argues for change from the inside—from inside the home, the workplace, and the institutions that establish hierarchies and norms that set women up to fail. There is strength in numbers when women as a collective push back and say, “No more—we are going to shift the paradigm.”
The social and political upheaval of the past five years, culminating in a global pandemic, has made one thing clear: we cannot continue to have the same debates today about work, children, love, and family that we did a generation ago. Working mothers are demanding more support, more flexibility, and more recognition from the government, from partners, and from bosses. But the recent muscular push for gender equality will succeed only if we stop undermining ourselves. We have got to stop buying what social media and other powerful institutions—cultural, political, familial—are selling us: perfectly curated images of svelte, selfless, self-effacing mothers flawlessly executing the work-life balance all on their own.
Let’s get real: Achieving the perfect work-life balance isn’t any more possible than being the perfectly selfless mother. What we have instead, as one grown son of a full-time working mother put it, is “sliding weights from one end of the scale to the other; family to work, work to family, with rare times in perfect balance.” That imbalance is healthy and necessary, and it involves the sharing of sacrifices and burdens that should not be a mother’s to bear alone. He went on:
You can’t always give your children your time or full attention (no one can), yet there is little doubt that you always give them your love. While young people can get attached to things and events that society and our culture reinforce as important, nothing is more important than love, safety, and a sense of available support. I like to think of it as the way an AC electrical current is always available and ready, even when something is not plugged in. You yourself, and with the aid of others, ensure this crucial foundation is in place.9
What would it take for the electrical-current analogy to take hold in the public imagination so that working women could be supported economically and emotionally by partners, peers, and society? A cultural shift. A legal shift. A reframing that does not pit work and life against each other in a zero-sum game. It is starting to happen. The pandemic is a natural jumping-off point for this high-stakes cross-profession negotiation. It has changed what work looks like for tens of millions of Americans, many of them women. While there is no understating the grossly disproportionate impact and stress the yearlong lockdown inflicted on mothers, who exited the workforce in droves,10 it also changed the rules about work. There is growing recognition that many aspects of a job that doesn’t require face-to-face interaction can be successfully and efficiently performed remotely.
Moving forward, particularly now that a demand for labor has created, at least temporarily, a job seeker’s market, women are positioned to bargain for schedules that better accommodate their needs and the needs of their children.11 These workplace accommodations save time and money by reducing the costs and time-suck of commuting and other expenses associated with a five-day-a-week office schedule. Soft pants mean hard savings in dry-cleaning bills; at-home lunches translate into big savings in meals not eaten out.
The pandemic has also reopened the conversation about expanding the social safety net to provide benefits that would transform the lives of working mothers, such as more robust unemployment insurance, paid family leave, child tax credits, and high-quality, low-cost childcare. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law on March 10, 2021, provided some of those benefits, albeit in temporary form. Even if Congress fails to make these benefits permanent, many states can, and some already have.12
But no real change is possible until working mothers let themselves off the hook and stop trying to be all things to all people—perfect at work, perfect as partners, and perfect as mothers, with each role entirely cabined off. Rather than engaging in the futile struggle to always put their children first while treating motherhood as a role that must be kept hermetically sealed from workplace schedules, struggles, triumphs, and woes, women need to embrace the seepage and come to understand that the messiness is a good in and of itself.
I have made that shift in my own life, intentionally choosing to raise children who see why my work is important. That holds true for so many professions—if what you do brings you and other people joy, provides a vital service, puts money in your bank account, or, hopefully, some combination of these things, your children will appreciate that your work makes the world inside and outside of your home a better place. They will understand that they can’t—and should not—always come first. At the same time, they will know that their existence inspires and motivates you.
When I was coming up for tenure, a well-meaning colleague advised me never to mention my children or even have their pictures in my office. I was also advised never to say that they were the reason I could not attend a work function or take on an extra assignment. I rejected this advice. I wanted to set a different example for the mothers who would be in my position some day in the future. I wanted to be able to tell those young women, “I was clear and direct about my childcare responsibilities and the limitations they would sometimes impose. I proved through my work ethic and my achievements that being a mother of young children is not incompatible with being an academic worthy of tenure. Yes, at times it was stressful and even scary, but it worked out in the end, and it will for you too.”
My mothering isn’t perfect. There is no such thing. But it is real and it is good. My children know that my love for my job does not diminish my love for them. They see me pay our bills on time and in full. They see me able to support them and myself through dedication, grit, and hard work that I love. We have had sunny days and darker ones; they have seen me struggle and they have seen me overcome. In the process, they have learned that there is strength to be found in a place of vulnerability. They have learned to be resilient.
I know because they show me. When my daughter was seven, she wrote a poem called “Getting Up.” She recited it in front of her entire elementary school at an assembly. It reads:
If something hard and heavy is weighing you down and you fall, get back up.
If someone says it is impossible, it makes me feel like it is more possible to get back up.
If you get back up, don’t think I am not going to talk to this person ever again.
Think I will try again and even if they push me again, I will get back up.
I don’t know if I have learned this the hard way or the easy but I have learned, and you can learn too.13
This book tells the story of ambitious mothers living in the United States in the twenty-first century who get pushed down and get back up. Diverse across race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, profession, geography, and country of origin, they are married, single, divorced, and widowed. What they have in common is their fierce love of work, their ability to help support—or, in some cases, solely support—their families, and their belief that striving for professional achievement and economic stability makes them better mothers, not worse ones. They know that a perfect work-life balance is impossible. But rather than apologize for what they can’t give their children, they celebrate what they can: a lifelong lesson in independence and self-confidence that will give them the tools to thrive and the courage to chase down their own dreams.
LOVE, MARRIAGE, BABY CARRIAGE
The vast majority of adult women in the United States become mothers. Eighty-six percent of women between the ages of forty and forty-four have children.1 When it is a choice, even the culmination of a long-held dream, having a baby should bring unmitigated joy. But for ambitious working women, that joy is often tinged with anxiety. What does becoming a mother mean for women’s work lives when time and money become scarcer and priorities shift while work structures remain rigid? For women who want to have biological children, when is the “right” time to have a baby to minimize the impact of these concerns and maximize the chance of getting pregnant and having a healthy child? The anxiety that women experience around becoming mothers is exacerbated by a torrent of conflicting messages delivered by the media, which alternately warns them about waiting too long and advises them to put off pregnancy and childbirth until they have achieved a certain economic, professional, and emotional stability.
In my late twenties and early thirties, as I ping-ponged from one headline to another, I felt unsure of what or whom to believe. Marriage is an important institution in my family, and my parents’ example hung over me, inspirational and daunting. My mother met her one true love at age seventeen, married him at twenty-one, and enjoyed five years of happily married life alone with him before having her first child at twenty-six. As far as I was concerned, she’d won the lottery. My dad was handsome, good-hearted, smart, successful, charming, and funny. Like any other couple, my parents fought, but it was clear that they were deeply in love.
It was also clear that theirs wasn’t going to be my story. As the years ticked by and I hadn’t found my own dreamboat, I started to worry that I was running out of time. Looking back, I realize how silly that seems. I was in my early thirties and there was no reason to believe I would have trouble getting pregnant. But I was scared by the statistic making headlines in the early 2000s: that a woman’s fertility generally begins to ebb in her late twenties and drops substantially by her mid- to late thirties.2
- “Make room on the shelf for Lara Bazelon… Bazelon is reassuring, self-aware and direct.”—New York Times Book Review
- “A fiery defense of the centrality and importance of women working”—The New Republic
- “A convincing argument that professional achievement both allows women to have greater freedom and acts as a valuable lessons that demonstrates to “children that by pursuing our dreams and ambitions, we are strong, independent, and eminently capable.” This is sure to make working mothers feel seen and celebrated.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Captivating and radical…reframes our understanding of working women—and shows how prioritizing your career benefits mothers, kids, and society at large.”—Next Big Idea Club
- "Ambitious Like a Mother is an anthem for mothers everywhere: dream big, for your children and for yourself. Bazelon's bold thesis--that ambitious mothers should embrace imbalance and empowerment--is backed up by stories that will make you laugh, cry, and raise both fists in the air." —Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex
- "This is a fascinating and provocative book that will resonate and spark debate. A must-read." —Emily Oster, author of Crib Sheet
- "In her bold new book, Lara Bazelon argues that, for mothers with careers, work-life balance is both a myth and a trap. It is yet another impossible standard to which women are held, and to which they hold themselves—every inevitable failure to achieve equipoise is a hard shove down the "shame spiral." But it doesn't have to be this way. Bazelon's book is a call to action. She invites readers to scrap societally imposed expectations and to consider a provocative question: What if embracing professional ambition, and the imbalance that comes with it, actually makes women good mothers?"—Author of Sisters In Hate
- "This smart, affirming, and engaging book should be at the top of every ambitious woman's reading list. Mothers who want more--when it comes to both their careers, their relationships, and their children--will find themselves seen, heard, and championed. The women in Bazelon's book feel like a group of friends you never knew you had, pointing the way to a larger community with the power to change the way you think about your own power and potential.” —Laura Niider, co-director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions
- "Lara Bazelon has written a must-read call to action for women. By persuasively arguing that maternal ambition can benefit our children, she empowers working women to reject the false construct of 'mom guilt' and instead embrace our passions."—Elise Jordan, MSNBC political analyst and Morning Joe panelist
- "I saw myself in many of these women. Bazelon makes a strong case for why we working moms should be proud of our professional accomplishments and urges us to stop feeling guilty about our refusal to let motherhood define who we are as women."—Reyna Grande, author of A Dream Called Home
- “Motherhood and ambition have previously been treated at odds with each other, but Lara Bazelon shatters that narrative and offers a path that empowers mothers to own their ambition and have the career and the family lives they want, on their terms.”—Hitha Palepu, author of We’re Speaking
- On Sale
- Apr 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little Brown Spark