The Ideal Mom, The Ideal Worker, and Our Dehumanizing Expectations of Women

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life,” wrote Alain de Botton.

But still, as women, we feel pressured to “go for it”; to “lean in”; to “have it all”.

The average American mother returns to work only weeks after giving birth.

About half of new mothers take five weeks or more of maternity leave, with a quarter taking off for nine to twelve weeks.  One in four return to work after only ten days. However, a stunning one third of mothers take no formal maternity leave at all, opting instead to return to work almost immediately.

And they do so with a new set of questions.

How does one become the ideal worker in their field? The ideal mother at home ideal mother at home?

Is it possible to be both, or does success in one endeavor inevitably come at the expense of the other? In reality, does the ideal mother or the ideal worker even exist at all? Is there anyone out there who has found a way to be both? If so, where is she? How did she do it?

More importantly – when will these questions stop being so important, and so exclusive to women?

These questions may seem dated in 2017, but unfortunately the struggle has not gone out of style. Mothers are often tasked with the bulk of household chores, as well as nearly all of the child care responsibilities – regardless of their employment status, or even their role as the breadwinner. They are faced with a “mom penalty” in the workplace – a stigma that, fair or not, assumes a woman’s role as a mother disqualifies her from being an ideal worker. At home, they are faced with a tremendous sense of guilt over missed first steps and unheard first words – a guilt that fathers are rarely, if ever, expected to feel.

Meanwhile, moms who stay home suffer, too. The sad reality is that the expectations we as a society place on the ideal mother are simply not realistic – even for those who make doing so their full time occupation. We give up careers. We sideline our professional goals. We work tirelessly every day, around the clock, giving our all to our families – and still, we often feel unsatisfied with our efforts, introducing ourselves by saying we are “just a stay-at-home mom,” or, even more incorrectly, “I don’t work.”

So – how do we answer these questions?

Simple. We call them out on their complete lack of realism and validity.

Women are not “ideal” mothers, workers, wives, or scholars

– in just the same way that men aren’t. We aren’t built to be the “ideal” anything. We are complex human beings who fill many roles and responsibilities, and we fill each one in a way that only we can. One woman’s picture of ideal motherhood will not match up to another’s. The same goes for marriage, physical fitness, and, yes, work life.

We are more than mothers.

We are more than workers. We are painters, we are runners, we are musicians, we are gardeners, we are leaders in our spiritual groups. We know how to change our own oil. We undertake woodworking projects. We bake mind-blowing cookies – or we don’t know how to turn on the stove.

We are whole human beings.

To reduce our identity to that of a mother or worker, and then to compare our success to an arbitrary standard, is to reject that notion.

A selfless caregiver does not have the power to grow in herself. She does not have her own identity. To see a woman only as her output in the context of work and family life is to devalue her as an entire person.

We build ourselves up as whole human beings and fill our lives as we see fit. We don’t stretch and bend to conform to society’s impossible and often arbitrary expectations of our roles. We can only be as ideal as we allow ourselves to be unique.

This is the only ideal we can – or should – aspire to live up to.

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained,” wrote Marie Curie. You are gifted for something that is unique and entirely you. You can, and will, accomplish it with effort and enthusiasm. Let this be your new ideal.

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