I don’t feel guilty about being a working mom. My own mother worked, as did my mother-in-law. My husband and I actually met while at work on a political campaign. He encouraged my career aspirations throughout our relationship, cheering me on as I pursued a second advanced degree in education during my pregnancy and collected it when our baby was seven months old.
That baby is now a toddler. I miss him during the day while I’m at work, but ultimately I feel proud of my contributions to our household. I certainly don’t think I’m robbing him of anything by not being home between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the week.
Instead, I’m wracked with a different sort of affliction: What I have is a healthy dose of feminist guilt.
Like many women who came of age in the 21st century, I always intended to enthusiastically pursue both a career and motherhood. And while being a loving, supportive parent is my priority, I suspect that my mothering skills aren’t exactly stay-at-home-mom caliber. Although I read to my toddler daily — and gather as much information on sensory activities and crafts as I can — one of our favorite traditions is snacking on the couch while watching Modern Family on Friday afternoons.
I’m okay with this — except that I don’t think I’m really killing it in the workplace, either. As a public employee, it’s hard to feel successful in traditional terms, like a large salary or lots of professional autonomy. I’m not leading teams or managing others, so I have a hard time connecting my work life to the Lean In mentality.
I get that many working mothers would kill to keep my hours. As an educator, I don’t need to worry about things like hiding family photos for fear of being taken less seriously — that’s a non-issue in my field. In fact, I sometimes feel like I’m not struggling enough as a working woman. After all, I’m home in time to share in dinner-making duties most nights, and while teachers always work extra hours, I rarely face sort of demands on my time that my friends in other fields experience. My work-life balance wasn’t always like this, but now you might say I have the perfect mom-friendly job.
But precisely because of this, I often feel that I’m not considered a professional woman — because professional women work in male-dominated fields. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t boss-ladied enough during the day to earn my device-free evenings — especially when my husband’s job often demands his attention late into the night.
Thanks to my (mostly) mom-friendly career, I feel I’m somewhere in between — I haven’t devoted my life to being a stay-at-home mother, and yet I’m not climbing the corporate ladder, either. And I’ve found that the perspectives of women in majority-female fields are frequently left out of conversations about balancing family with career success. This leads me to wonder whether I have to surrender my feminist card. After all, my day-to-day work doesn’t involve bringing in profitable clients, or anything related to a STEM skill (and, apparently, teaching it doesn’t count). So I worry: Have I failed the sisterhood?
My guilt lies in the fact that we’ve set up our lives around our careers. We’ve hired a full-time nanny, as well as a cleaning crew that comes monthly. And yet, I feel that I’m failing to uphold my end of the deal as a working woman. Yes, I’m building a career toward my own professional objectives, but am I really prioritizing a job in which I bring home a fraction of what my husband does? A career in which the earning potential is, frankly, limited?
Of course I know, on an intellectual level, that the absence of a high-powered career does not exclude me from being a feminist. Nor does it leave me out of the “working mom” tribe with which I so badly want to identify. But education is not a traditionally male dominated field, and therefore educators are not traditionally respected. Accomplished women in education haven’t received the same accolades as accomplished women in other fields — after all, teaching is “women’s work.”
It’s not like there aren’t issues of inequality in education. After all, women make up 76 percent of teachers but less than a quarter of district superintendents are female. Many of us still don’t have much, if any, paid maternity leave. (I emptied out my sick leave to have my son, and I went back to work when he was nine weeks old — far before I was ready.)
I spent my first year of motherhood struggling to keep my breast milk supply up, since having a classroom full of teenagers for the majority of the day and no private office space wasn’t especially conducive to pumping. (There were lots of one-handed lunches, missed meetings, and custodians walking in on me.) In short, having a female-dominated career doesn’t automatically make a workplace good for women.
Then again, maybe I’m just a stereotypical millennial woman. Maybe I’m someone who really has it all — the husband, the child, the house, the help, and the job — yet never feels she has it all because she’s never quite successful enough in her career or as a mother. In society’s eyes, or maybe just my own, in one way or another, I fall short.
But I am a busy working mother. I’m also an educator, a partner to my husband, an involved community member and, still, a feminist. And I strive to wear all these hats as adeptly as any woman — any human — can, even if I often fail.
So maybe I have struggled enough after all.