The Quest to Find Realistic Role Models for Working Mothers

Superstar moms can be more intimidating than inspiring. Where are the relatable examples of women who manage both children and successful careers?
September 15, 2022

I was so excited when this was published in The Atlantic Feb 25, 2013

Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Uber-achieving working mothers like Marissa Mayer (left) and Sheryl Sandberg (right) can provide more discouragement than inspiration for many parents. (AP Images)

After her second son was born, Nada Arnot was recruited from NBC to become the Chief Digital Officer at a top PR and marketing agency. Two years later, she was recruited again—this time to become the Vice President of Marketing for Kaplan.

Sound seamless? It wasn't. "Careers are rarely linear, but especially for women with children," she told me in an interview. "During my career 'pauses,' I reflected on my next set of goals and then actively developed the skills I would need to get there. That said, the interruptions were stressful. But I think that's normal and women who feel the same should know they are not alone."

Sharon Edmondson, meanwhile, got married at 18 and worked her way up to her current role as Vice President, Human Resources, for the Americas at Regus, where she manages more than 3,000 employees. She's also the mother of four kids. As her career began to accelerate, her husband and their extended family began to take on greater roles in their home and family life. "I also realized that, contrary to what I had previously thought, more seniority would actually allow me greater control over my life," Edmondson said, "and so I began to strategically pursue advancement opportunities."

Why Do Successful Women Feel So Guilty?

Allison O'Kelly went from Harvard Business School to auditing firm KPMG, followed by the fast-track management program at Toys R Us. Then she had children. "It wasn't the hours that got to me, it was the inability to control when and where I worked those hours," she said. So O'Kelly started her own practice focused on strategic planning, accounting, and tax services for small businesses. Today, Allison is the mother of three, and the consulting practice has become Mom Corps, a professional staffing firm with over 17 franchises throughout the U.S.

Unlike Sheryl Sandberg (the COO of Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo), Arnot, Edmonson, and O'Kelly are not household names (not yet, anyway). But it's their stories, and those of the thousands of others like them, that working mothers, recent graduates, employers, and male colleagues all need to hear more of: relatable women from a diverse range of professional and personal backgrounds, successfully navigating career and family in a variety of different ways. It's the only way to change the current cultural framework of children as incompatible with professional success and the negative outcomes associated with generally accepted beliefs (from mothers being less likely to be hired, to facing a continued wage gap, to still being regularly overlooked when it comes to advancement opportunities

Yes, the Sandbergs and Mayers of the world are hugely inspiring—for both men and women, and for parents and non-parents. But they are also career outliers—meaning that they are so incredibly successful that their stories can be more intimidating than helpful.

I know from personal experience. Seven years ago, I discovered I was, unexpectedly (and unintentionally), three months pregnant. Amidst the conflicting emotions was the sense that my career was over. I had recently left my job at a national law firm. It wasn't because of family or work-life balance issues but for simpler reasons: I knew I was never going to be a very good or happy lawyer.

Instead, I moved to the UK and switched into public relations. This meant I was now pregnant, in an entry-level position, and earning pennies on the dollar compared to my last role. But I was determined that my baby wasn't going to grow up with a mother who felt frustrated or resentful about the interesting and fulfilling career dreams she had given up—although I wasn't quite sure what I should do to prevent this. I was a victim of what author Chiamanda Adichie describes in her TED talk as the dangers of a "single story": the mass acceptance of a dominant narrative that then perpetuates and fulfills itself. In this case, that "single story" was the time-honored belief that, barring superstardom (think Hollywood celebrities with their post-baby "best bodies ever!") or political and corporate elite status, children are essentially incompatible with career success.

While impressive and inspirational stories are certainly just that, I wasn't alone in my desire for role models that were more accessible and relatable to my own issues and career. A nationwide internal survey by Deloitte Canada found that women overwhelmingly wanted to hear more about workable templates for their lives and careers—that is, practical advice and ideas from other women at the same life stage on how to raise a family and continue to move their careers forward.

"There's a perception among young women that there are few role models for them. They don't see women successfully managing their careers and their lives [whom] they feel they can relate to," says Jane Allen, Deloitte Canada's Chief Diversity Officer and leader of the firm's global renewable energy division. Jane, a mother of two, did consulting work while her daughters were young to develop her expertise before transitioning into Deloitte. As a consultant, Jane could generally skip the commute, work from home, and have a better control over her schedule—all while continuing her professional growth.

I wasn't seeing those stories in the media, but I knew they were out there. So I began looking for them as a way to inspire myself and to learn from their experiences.

Since then, I've had the opportunity to speak with over 500 women from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds, all of whom achieved greater career success after having children, as research for my forthcoming second book, The MomShift: Finding The Opportunity In Maternity, Positive Stories of Post Baby Career Success. Their stories have provided a variety of templates for the different ways that women are navigating career and family. And while all have been more professionally successful after having their children, their success takes many forms.

When working mother success is defined by the achievements, struggles, and angst of an elite group of women, it overlooks what Judith Warner articulated in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety as the ability to "accommodate the more average kind of ambition with motherhood. The kind of ambition that most women and men have: to work a sufficient number of hours, at work they find interesting, meaningful, or enjoyable to earn enough money to buy their families a sufficiently good standard of living."

Consumer-goods manufacturer Unilever is one example of the private sector's deliberate efforts to accommodate the reality that successful careers don't necessarily have to be defined by a relentless race up the ladder. Instead, Unilever is proactively encouraging women (and men) to make the career choices they feel comfortable with, rather than choosing the career options they feel pressured to choose.

"Previously, women in marketing often felt the pressure to move 'up or out.' Instead, we are now adopting a more flexible approach which lets talented women move at their own pace and makes it okay to just stay at a certain level," says Alison Leung, a mother of two and Director of Marketing, Foods, at Unilever Canada (a position she reached after starting her own family).

Anusha Deshpande is a first-year student at Harvard Business School, and she's part of the generation that is already acutely aware of this debate. "Family and career are still presented as such a dichotomy, and we never hear that there's obviously a middle ground." Still, she said, "For me, when I think about having it all, I think it means a lack of life-defining sacrifices in the realm of either family or career. Not having a superstar career doesn't mean you've somehow failed."

The stories I found about post-baby career success gave me practical ideas on how to nudge my own career and family life in the direction I wanted, from childcare options, to work from home arrangement as well as ways to manage my times and goals. Most of all, it gave the belief that professional fulfillment and family could coincide and the insight to appreciate that it's an ongoing journey. Three kids and two books later, I've used freelance work to more rapidly advance my professional experience (by taking on more challenging projects than I would have access to if I weren't self-employed), contract work to move into new fields such as social-enterprise startups and in-house communications roles for stability. Now, I'm in the midst of bringing that experience together in an entrepreneurial venture.

Although I don't feel "successful" on a daily basis, I do feel like I found a way to balance my family and career in way that ensures my children will never feel the guilt of having forced someone to give up their own dreams and ambitions for them. Hopefully, as a result, my kids will always feel free to pursue their own.

Reva Seth is the mother of three boys. Her second book, The MomShift: Finding The Opportunity In Maternity, Positive Stories of Post Baby Career Success will be published by Random House in January 2014.

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