This is a tricky question to ask, especially since the context- and meaning of the question- varies from culture to culture (and country to country).
In collectivist societies, such as our own and the ones in India and China, women are expected to choose motherhood over careers. In western cultures, which are more individualistic, feminist norms dictate that women should pay more attention to their careers, even when it comes at the cost of childcare. This is a question that has many dimensions, and thus cannot be taken at face value alone.
Motherhood is a fulfilling, full-time job with clear, emotionally satisfying rewards. “I thought about how much I loved teaching my kids hopscotch, leading my daughter’s girl scout troop, and making up silly games for my son’s school parties,” Diane Loca wrote in an article where she explained why she chose motherhood over a full-time career.
“I wanted those experiences for me. It’s the kind of motherhood journey I’d always dreamed of — the kind that fit my personality and desires. I wanted to be there after school to help my kids with homework and take them to their activities, so I could watch them blossom in karate classes and piano lessons.”
When it comes to motherhood, people often identify a dichotomy that makes them choose between what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their children.
For many mothers, the choice is moot: no one wants to be selfish enough to prioritize their own needs over their children’s needs.
What makes the choice even more clear cut is when some mothers struggling to balance motherhood and career find that they are becoming increasingly unhappy in their jobs.
“These women work full-time and do far more than their fair share of the housework (women do two thirds of this, on average, as it is), and also take on the vast majority of the ‘emotional labour’ at home, like setting up doctor’s appointments for the kids, organising birthday parties, and making sure grandma receives enough attention et al,” wrote Wies Bratby for the Telegraph. “Add to all of this a horrendous commute and an inbox that is swelling at all times of day and night, and it’s no wonder, they feel as though their mental and physical health is compromised.
Compared to what they are earning, it just doesn’t seem worth it to them. And so these women quit their corporate careers, feeling that is the only viable option to keep their family — and themselves — ticking over.”
In a way, framing this dilemma in an either-or question is unfair. It’s similar to asking someone to choose between a job that pays well and a hobby that they love (but doesn’t pay much, if at all). Both motherhood and careers are important to women in different ways. Career women such as Indra Nooyi have spearheaded Fortune 500 companies while still being good mothers to their children. But obviously, there are trade offs.
One of Nooyi’s children wrote a letter to her when she was around 4–5 years old. “Dear mom, Please, please, please, please please come home. I love you, but I’d love you more if you came home.”
Nooyi has been very candid about her struggles as a working mother. In her household, she still had to perform the duties of a wife and mother despite being PepsiCo CEO.
Nooyi’s mother drilled this into her at one point. “When you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. Nobody else can take that place. Leave that damn crown in the garage.”
This kind of societal pressure is keenly felt by all women across the spectrum. “In Australia, everyone seemed to agree that family came first, and it was fine to start at 7am and leave at 3pm. But back in London, I found it harder and harder to be the mother I wanted to be,” wrote Alex Blackie for the Guardian.“The jigsaw puzzle I had built of my life was falling apart. My beliefs of what it was to be a good mother were being smashed, although I wasn’t sure if it was my beliefs that were at fault or my own ability.
I peered at the other women on the train. Their makeup and hair was perfect, they were on conference calls and it wasn’t even 8am.
I felt as if society were telling me I had to try to be the perfect worker Monday to Friday, the perfect mother every weekend, and toned, healthy woman all year round. Oh, and, of course, wife, friend, sibling and daughter.”
Of course, many moms take an extended time off from work to raise their newborns. When they try to return to work, they find that their work gap makes it that much harder to get a new job. It’s clear that taking time off after having a child is a natural and sensible thing to do. That’s why maternity leave is such an important and essential part of modern work lives. However, how much time is enough?
Do you only need a year off, or do you need two? What about the mothers who haven’t worked for five years? And what number of children is the ideal amount? Three, five or nine?
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that educated women usually have smaller families. “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, or nine children,” he said at a United Nations event. And then highly educated women from all around the world posted pictures of their several children, using the hashtag #PostcardsForMacron. Of course, this doesn’t change the reality that, exceptions aside, highly educated families tend to be smaller on average.
“High fertility rates are not the product of a lack of education. But the two — an education, and multiple children — can often feel mutually exclusive,” wrote Gracy Olmstead for the Week.
“Many brilliant women out there choose children over a degree, because they see their children as the best investment of their time and talents. Their motherhood is not the result of ignorance — far from it. They’ve seen the value of life, and embraced it, even if it means fewer educational opportunities.
But if we can help those brilliant women choose both — if they want to do so — we should. Because children are a gift — to the Ph.D. student as well as the stay-at-home mom.”
I am keenly aware of the sacrifices my own mother has made. While she has taught Economics for the last twenty-odd years, she also invested a considerable amount of time on my own education and overall well-being. I am grateful for that, and I can tell that she made a conscious decision to be there for me during my formative years. I don’t remember my childhood all that well, but she probably does. And I am glad that she has those memories to cherish.
If I were to marry, would I ask my would-be wife to make the same choice in the same way? Probably not, but that’s not my place to say. This is a choice that every woman has to make at some point in their life. I hope that most make the choice that reflects what they truly want out of life, instead of what they feel they are obligated to do.
Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps we should be asking how both men and women can balance their careers and parenthood in a way that’s authentic and personally fulfilling for them.
Of course, that’s a whole another can of worms. But it’s one that we should pay more attention to, instead of choosing blindly and winding up with many regrets afterwards. After all, we are the ones who have to live with ourselves and the choices we make. And it’s best to make a choice that makes it easier to live with ourselves, and not harder.