Teaching kids that women can work and be moms at the same time

By K.C. Willivee

My three-year-old daughter M had been playing with her dolls for over an hour, giving them bottles, changing their clothes, gently patting them as she laid them down for afternoon naps. She asked if I could help pack their diaper bag. “Maybe you’ll be a mom when you grow up,” I said, tucking a plastic bottle into the side pocket.

Disappointment immediately flashed across her face. “No,” she said. “I want to be a surgeon.” And there was a bite to the way she said it.

“Well, actually, I’m a psychologist and a mom,” I shot back, unreasonably stung by her response. I admired her ambition, but at the same time I was saddened by her belief that motherhood and a career could not co-exist.

Because I was a psychologist, in practice for ten years before my partner’s job moved him to Puerto Rico and we embarked on a family adventure that had no place for both careers. For the first few months, it was a giddy ride of mother-daughter finger-painting projects, art creations with box tops and seashells, and ridiculously one-sided competitions with veteran mom bloggers (“I’ll see you your fake snow project and raise you an ice castle nestled in it”).

But within three months we became hampered by the practical realities of our living situation, in which our one car went off to work in the morning and my daughter and I did our daily errands on foot. My partner’s hours were a lot longer than either of us had expected, and so we wound up with a gender-stereotypical division of labor. And, as it turned out, there were just so many times I could walk down to the cleaners carrying a pile of men’s dress shirts in the rain before I started to feel diminished.

With no microwave or dishwasher, the day-to-day grind of food preparation began to wear on me as well. The “mom” parts of my life no longer seemed as enjoyable; I worried about being able to get all the household chores done if my daughter and I wanted to play an extra game of Candyland. My world had shrunk to our apartment and its wearisome demands. And I quickly learned that a pile of unfolded laundry I might have seen as a fact of life while I was working now felt like a defeat.

And the biggest defeat of all was that my daughter responded with curled lip to the suggestion that she might be a mother when she grows up.

There had been other indications that M was absorbing gender stereotypes we would rather she not have. There was the Saturday my partner was in the kitchen mixing up Hawaiian honey burgers when she careened around the corner, shouting, “Dad, you’re not the cooker. Mom’s the cooker!”

We had been so careful to say that she can be anything she wants to be. But what we were unwittingly showing her now was that being a mom excludes other possibilities outside the home. That when you’re the mom you get to do the art projects and play the games. But you also are the one to scrub the floors and clean the shirts, no matter whose shirts they are. You do the repetitive tasks and your partner does the consequential things. You’re a supporting actor.

My partner and I had arranged our division of labor so that we each functioned in only one domain. Small wonder, then, that we had failed to teach our daughter that it is possible to be a parent and have a job at the same time.

A couple of months ago we moved back to the mainland United States and I went back to work. Telecommuting and part-time as a contract lesson writer, aiming to have the best of both worlds. But it was still an adjustment for us all, especially for this child who started daycare at 16 weeks old but then, at age three, had gotten used to eight months in my exclusive care. To ease the transition, I tried to get everything done while she was at school, but I found that I had occasional emails or edits which demanded my immediate attention even while the two of us were together. And, as before, she made her opinions on that front known through her dolls.

She was scribbling furiously in her notebook when I decided to try to play dolls with her. I was fake crying as I pushed her favorite baby, Claudia, towards her. M looked up with dismay and said, “I’m working right now.”

Doubling down, I increased the volume of the doll’s cries. “Your baby is really upset,” I told her.

“Yeah, but I’m working right now and it’s REALLY IMPORTANT!”

I felt chastened. Did M believe that I would ignore her cries if I had work to do? I’d like to believe, if there was an immediacy to her need, that I would address it and then return to whatever deadline I was facing. But there is a limit to how much work can be rearranged in the name of parental responsiveness, particularly when a child is older. Maybe that inner conflict is what M sees, my impossible desire to be fully available to her without sacrificing my professional identity and obligations.

I tried not to be too heavy-handed with my response. I simply told her that work and motherhood can both be important. After which, she returned to her notebook and I returned to the laundry, wondering if we would ever strike the right balance.

Before she became a mother and a writer, K.C. Willivee was a clinical psychologist who did not specialize in either child development or parenting. She muddles along like most of us and enjoys writing about both her daughter and her partner, though she disguises the latter in the form of romantic fiction.

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