In which a woman enjoys paychecks, dandelions, and hugs

2497301920_91490c42c0_mI had a post written for Mother’s Day, but after reading through it a few times, I started to find it annoying. And it was about me! If I found it annoying, no doubt everyone else would too.

So instead, I want to riff a bit on false choices, and the way they narrow and poison arguments.

This is related to Mother’s Day, I suppose, because the topic came out of the post over at Modern Mrs. Darcy I linked to yesterday. Anne suggested (crazy!) that society needed more women in leadership roles, and many of the barriers keeping women out of such roles are (my word) stupid. I tend to find this statement uncontroversial, but a handful of the folks making comments headed straight toward the usual dividing lines of such arguments. Women can only handle one big thing in life at once. If a woman has a big career, she must be a (insert word implying “bad”) mother. No one can have it all! Sometimes there is an additional, more self-righteous twist implying that the person offering this comment has much better priorities than other women.

This is certainly one way to have an argument. I enjoy the specific phrases people sometimes use when making these points: praising women who “refuse to ignore their families to go help a corporation make more widgets.” Or “If you get your joy from a paycheck and a pat on the head, go for it. I prefer hugs and dandelions.”

But there are many other ways to look at this issue, too. Is making mindless, meaningless widgets the only sort of career one might have? Or are there other careers that might nurture the soul, and perhaps humanity, far more? I can think of many — healing people, teaching people, ministering to people, creating art that inspires them, starting businesses that make useful products that people can’t imagine life without. Personally, I’m glad some people take time to do these things, even if they risk other people feeling superior because they are doing these things instead of interacting with their families in the way some people deem proper. And by the way, does working require ignoring your family? Women spend more time interacting with their children now than they did in the 1950s and 1960s, even though the vast majority of mothers work now, and far fewer than half did then.

Likewise, could it be possible that getting joy from a paycheck — which gives you the ability to support your children, whatever happens with their father — need not preclude also enjoying hugs? And dandelions? It is a caricature that ambitious people don’t enjoy clementines, as the Real Simple editor’s letter implied, and likewise, in 168 hours, there is space for many things. Today I made a big pancake breakfast with my kids. We played outside with the tricycles and the dandelions. We spent time observing the patterns water makes as it runs through the flower petals on the driveway. Very relaxed. And I worked today, too.

I find that life is more fun when you see lots of possibilities beyond narrow arguments. Because narrow arguments can get us in trouble. If missing a soccer game makes you a bad parent, that’s a problem, because you can chuck all paid work and other commitments from your life and still miss a soccer game because your other kid has a gymnastics meet. So it goes. Things are seldom black and white.

In other news: Check out Daily Worth founder Amanda Steinberg’s WSJ piece on her desire for “self-funded princesses.

Photo courtesy flickr user Acutance

43 thoughts on “In which a woman enjoys paychecks, dandelions, and hugs

  1. Love this. I was following the thread on Anne’s blog but didn’t trust myself to comment because I was getting riled up. The “hugs & dandelions” thing really bothered me because it implied that working mothers did not get their children’s love… and I’ll leave it at that. I just deleted a whole rant because what this boils down to is the tired-old “mommy wars” and I don’t want to add fuel to that fire!

  2. I find it interesting that people seem to think the choice is between being a SAHM and a CEO (or other executive). Yes, I know the Sandburg argument is that we need more women leaders and executives, and I don’t disagree. But, it seems to me the the CEO world is actually kind of small, while there is a huge area in between SAHM and CEO where women can have a lot of influence, if they choose to. I’m thinking of division vice presidents, directors, team leads, and the like, among others.

    I think of my own work environment – since I work in HR, it is a female-dominated area, and our Senior VP and the vast majority of the managers and directors are women. We (as a department) have a unique ability to shape the corporate culture, which I find exciting. Since I personally work in employee benefits, I have the opportunity to help make some pretty important company decisions on health care. I don’t have what anyone could call a “big” job, but why should I sit back and do nothing when I can make a positive contribution to the discussion?
    In addition, many women *have* to work out of financial necessity – why should we make them feel bad or cripple them with guilt for that? Instead we should help empower them so that they can achieve more in their careers and thus have more choices. Most of us have to put in our 8 hours anyway – why not make it fun and as personally fulfilling as possible?
    I know I’m preaching to the choir here (so to speak), so I’ll stop. I do find it interesting that I’m seeing this discussion all over the web these days (or so it seems to me) – in addition to MMD, one of the blogs I read when planning my wedding ( is having a whole discussion this month on motherhood and working, and it’s fascinating to see the various forms these discussions take.

    1. @Pamela – oh, it’s always a hot topic. I know I tend to get lost of comments on posts like these, and I’m sure every other website can see that too, so we keep re-hashing it. I have high hopes that someday none of this will seem controversial. I don’t see quite this level of chat around Father’s Day…

      How wonderful that you are able to use your position to make positive changes in the lives of your company’s employees. We should all try to do what we can to improve other people’s lives through our own life’s work.

    2. I think your point about the whole area between SAHM and CEO is exactly right. It’s even fascinating to see what innovative women are doing in the work-at-home arena. I know so many moms that blend work/family in ways that are often ignored in this discussion.

      1. @Monica – true. I do get a bit worried that people are so excited about something being a work-from-home type job that they don’t look for interesting work that pays enough. And there are people with very traditional jobs who do an excellent job blending work and family. On the other hand, I know that I’ve enjoyed getting to eat lunch with my kids probably 3 days a week this year. I also heard a tale recently of someone (a father, incidentally) building a home-based business and then selling it for something in the $15-20 million range. Nice!

        1. Yes, there are small, home-based, hobby-like businesses, and there are huge home-based businesses that get sold for massive amounts of stock or cash, and there is a lot of room in-between. When I first meet someone and I tell them I am self-employed and frequently work from home, they assume I do not make much money, that I sell homemade stationery in an Etsy store, or my own cupcakes from a cute Airstream trailer, or that I am a makeup company franchisee, and my hubby bankrolls my every move. Grr, I hate that. When they find out I am actually self-made and loaded they then assume my Daddy is bankrolling me. Wrong. But suggests to me a lot about perhaps what other women-owned small businesses are doing.

  3. Amen.

    Though I gotta say that I will be happier both when my grading is done and the baby isn’t sick anymore. Both at the same time is unpleasant. But that’s a small blip in my work/parent life.

  4. I think I missed the “dandelions and hugs” thing, or maybe it got deleted?

    I wonder how much of this comes down to personality, too. I lack an ambition gene. I have never cared about being “the best” at something – I’m not competitive at all.

    All I want is “enough” – enough money, interesting things to do, and hobbies I love. The gold stars from work (and paycheck!) were nice, sure, but they didn’t inherently make me *happy*, I discovered. But I do genuinely like being home with my kids on most days and am happy in a way I never was before.

    I think as humans we do a lot of justification of our personal choices. So (for example), when someone says they work to set a good example for their kids to show that moms have careers too, that doesn’t mean I should feel like I’m setting a bad example. (Though of course that’s easier said than done…)

    In the end it all comes down to confidence in our own choices, right? There are always going to be people on the Internet who disagree. Fortunately they’re not part of my family.

    1. @ARC – I’m still betting on your ghost scrapbooking business that’s going to wind up paying more than a certain high-tech company in Seattle. 🙂

      I made sure to copy down the dandelions and hugs line. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not in the 90 intense comments…

      1. It’s still there. To be fair, even when I was in high school, having to do the kind of dead-end jobs she’s describing as her alternative left me too exhausted to really do much other than watch tv at the end of the day.

        Fortunately for me, I’ve leaned in (and continued leaning in), so, with a few exceptions (like yesterday), my work days generally allow me excitement, autonomy, and the ability to enjoy life at home too.

      2. Hah, I’d love it if someone paid me to be crafty. Actually, they do (Etsy) but somehow that takes the joy out of it for me. I’d rather work fewer hours as a project manager and make more $. I do have some business ideas around scrapbooking, though, and am ruminating on how to make that happen.

    2. We don’t all have to be examples of the same thing to our daughters! I want my daughters to have a range of choices about how to live their lives, and I’d like them to be able to look around and find good role models for all of their choices. I can be an example of one type of choice, but they may not want the same things I do- I want them to see other women making other choices and being happy. (Incidentally, I’d want the same thing for boys, if I had them.)
      I will admit that sometimes when my life feels tougher than it has to be, thinking of my daughters keeps me plowing forward, for two reasons: 1. Keeping my career focus is the authentic thing for me- it is what my heart tells me is right. And I want them to see me continuing to reach for the goals my heart tells me I want to achieve, not selling myself short on those because of roadblocks society has thrown up in my way. 2. I want to do my bit to make this particular choice a little easier for the next generation of women to make, if they want.

      1. @Cloud – I think your #1 is so right – that it’s important to do what your heart is telling you is right, not what “society” tells you, whatever that may be. And #2 is a pretty noble goal, too.

      2. Yes, having my son and daughter to be able to look around someday and find good role models for all of their choices would be awesome. This of course means that my husband and I ought not go around disparaging folks who have made different choices than we have, lest our kids incorrectly assume that folks who made different choices than we did are “wrong.” For example, I know too many professional women who heard incorrect negative talk about daycare and nannies from their own SAH-moms and are now SAHMs in large part because they were taught by their own mothers it is the only One True Way. In a perfect world, that really ought to be an active choice, not one made out of family shaming and fear – like the fear that one’s kids won’t enjoy “hugs and dandelions” false rhetoric.

        1. @hush – the daycare issue in particular is one that bugs me. My oldest son went to daycare for the first 4 years of his life. He learned all his letters and numbers, he learned sight words at age 3, and how to write. He was exposed to a lot more academically than children who went to preschool for 2-3 hours a day because he was going to preschool for 8 hours a day. School is good. More of it often helps you learn more.

          1. The other awesome thing about daycare was that it changed my perception about what my daughter could do at her age (starting at 13 months). It never occured to me that she could throw away garbage, learn to put on her own coat, etc. before age 2! The self-care skills and independence she learned in daycare have been essential in helping our family run smoothly now that we have 2.

            I think some of the perceptions come from the fact that daycare quality varies so widely, too.

          2. @ARC – yes, quality does vary. But also, it’s just an easy thing to attack. And when it comes to this topic, people just like to attack other people. Very frustrating.

  5. I love how you framed this issue: yes, it’s certainly about false choices, and more so today (America c. 2013) than ever.

    And I agree these issues are seldom black and white. Real life is complicated, and I’m surprised when people are unable–or unwilling–to grasp this.

    (Small case in point: I’ve missed a slew of my son’s baseball games this season, because they often start after my younger 3 kids are in bed. I’ve made a mere 20% of the games, not because I’m a working mom but because I’m the parent of more than one child. I wonder what the other parents think of my non-attendance, though I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who notices. My son, who understands the issues surrounding ball schedules and bedtimes, gets it–and is thrilled when the whole family can cheer him on on Saturdays.)

    1. @Anne – thanks for writing the post that inspired this! And I’m glad your son is cool with the baseball schedule. I know the research shows only children turn out absolutely fine, but there is a certain realization, when you have lots of siblings, that you can’t always have mom and dad there for really solid, good logistical reasons.

      I’ve enjoyed reading about another false choice you’re debunking — you work and homeschool!

  6. Just yesterday, one of my cousins posted a picture of herself eating lunch with her daughters at their school and said something along the lines of she was glad her husband worked hard so she could do that. I resisted commenting that I just had lunch with my son at his school even though I work full time. I also managed sneak away for an hour last week to attend his music program. False choices.

    I read 168 Hours before returning to full time work last year because I needed to hear another narrative. I follow your blog for the same reason.

    My husband and I both work in professional fields. When I returned to full time work in an office last year (after 5 years of part time work from home), he changed his schedule at work so goes in earlier and gets home in time to pick up the kids from school. It has worked out great. Who says mom has to be the one to pick the kids up from school?

    Thank you for being a voice for other possibilities.

    1. @Natalie – a good example of a false choice. And this gets at another dimension I didn’t even talk about in the post, which is choices for men, and how they are affected by women’s choices too. In the past few days (anecdotes, to be sure, not data!) I’ve been told a few stories of men taking different jobs — more lucrative but less in keeping with their interests and passions — because their wives are scaling back their careers, either going part-time or staying home. These can be family decisions, to be sure. But hopefully not made because people are seeing the world through this lens of false choices.

  7. I can’t bring myself to go read the comment thread. I am just not in the mood to deal with people who are so sure I’m doing it all wrong. I wonder if what Barbara Sher calls the scanner vs. deep-diver personality plays in here? I am a scanner, which means I have a lot of different interests, and I am the type that likes to pursue more than one interest at a time. So it feels completely natural to me to be pursuing my current career, tinkering with some other career ideas on the side, and parenting all at once. Maybe for someone who is more of a deep-diver, it doesn’t feel natural to do that, and they want to focus on parenting for awhile and then later go back to focusing on something else. Both ways are fine, and we should try to set up our society to make both ways possible, as much as we can.

    1. You’re not doing it all wrong. 🙂

      And, most likely, except for the extreme need to judge other people’s choices, they’re probably not doing it wrong either.

      I bet you’re right about scanner vs. deep-diver, and I think there’s also some introvert/extravert stuff and many other personality differences. Different strokes for different folks, eh?

    2. @Cloud – oh, I’m sure many factors play into people’s views of the universe. There is what we saw growing up, there are personality characteristics, even children’s schedules (if my kids had ever gone to sleep at 6:30, I might feel differently about working until 5 or 6. Then again, I probably would have gotten a lot more work done after 7!). There is the nature of the work we have chosen to do, and how meaningful/fulfilling/lucrative we find it. Or how flexible it is. There is what we see around us in our communities. There are also the career choices our spouses have made.

    3. Flipped through the comments more. Lots and lots of comments making claims to hard-coded biological differences. Those always irritate me because they always have me double checking that there really is a baby that I gave birth to currently attached to my chest, because I invariably end up on the “male” side.
      Of course, I’m just an unnatural mother. .
      Thank God my kids are turning out ok even though He and Mother Nature may disagree with my household’s division of labor.

      1. Ha! And I’m making a lot of those “biological” comments. And when I read books about typical male/female communication styles in marriage, I come up on the male side of things and my husband more female.

  8. Brava. Other points – so what if a woman devotes 40+ hours weekly to a widget manufacturer? Maybe she gains satisfaction from helping to build a company that employs her neighbors, or contribute to the economy, or makes little thingies that go into MRI machines that help save lives. Or maybe she works because she has to feed her kids. Or perhaps she makes widgets because she doesn’t care about creative fulfillment and earns an nice paycheck that gives her and her family financial stability and the plethora benefits that come with that.

    And for the SAHM defenders — the last time we needed women to stay at home fulltime was before WWII, when farming and other family businesses took vast sums of women’s time and physical energy WORKING to EARN MONEY for their families. Then washing machines, furnaces and refrigerators and sundry other technology made life easier. Never in history have mothers spent the majority of their time cooing over and “nurturing” kids during their prime earning years.

    1. But if people want to do a form of early retirement and can afford it, more power to them, children or not. The industrial revolution has given us the surplus to allow that. Not my choice, but the (childless) other half of our blog would love to not work if she didn’t have to.

        1. Yes. That, and… though I agreed at first with “the last time we needed women to stay at home fulltime…” then I thought about it some more, and, um, *someone* has to watch the kids. If they’re in school, great (during school hours), but otherwise it means hiring care, and not all women can afford that either, their “prime earning years” or not. (Yes, even fewer women can afford NOT to work, but we don’t all make enough for paying for daycare to be worth it, on the face of it.) Even if a woman has a home office, she’ll often need to hire at least a little help if she wants to get any work done, as Laura Vanderkam has pointed out herself.

          Don’t get me wrong, I prefer to declare neutrality in the mommy wars, as Cloud has put it. I’m not trying to argue that women working outside the home are so privileged or SAHM are so privileged or blah blah blah. Besides, I take my baby to work, so I don’t really fit nicely in either camp anyway. Just sayin’ that dismissing it out of hand as “cooing over and ‘nurturing’ kids” makes too much light of it, unfairly, much like the criticism of “widgets.”

          I guess I can understand the impulse to glorify one’s own choice and denigrate the opposite — one didn’t choose the opposite because the opposite wasn’t worth it, right? Whereas one’s own choice just has so very much obvious value, right? Sigh. Can we all please not do that?

          I mean, as the OP says anyway, that ignores all the possibilities, too, and that “Things are seldom black and white.”

  9. There is so much I could say to all this. Since I became a mother 24 years ago, I’ve been a part time working mom, a full time stay at home mom and a full time working mom. There were all the best choices for my family at the time. I just can’t believe 24 years later we are still fighting the mommy wars. We all are doing the best we can. Happy Mother’s Day.

  10. Hi Laura, I enjoy your blog and I’m a first time commenter. I really appreciate this post. I wanted to comment over on the other post but I was not able to do it graciously so I decided not to comment at all.

    I couldn’t agree more with this idea of false choices. Along the lines of choice, many mothers don’t have the choice whether to work or not since they may be single mothers or primary earners in their partnerships. They are forced to simply make it work. Would anyone dare say these mothers are bad parents?

    I do think there is inherently more flexibility in schedule when you work from home and/or for yourself, but we have many involved fathers in my office who leave early and/or arrive late on certain days because of responsibilities with their kids. I think my employer is above average in terms of promoting a balanced lifestyle, but they can only be further enlightened to these issues as more mothers continue to work after having children, and that to me was the whole point of Lean In.

  11. I admit, when I hear the term “Soccer Mom” I think “brain dead woman who has sacrificed her career/life/brain to her children and never learned how to drive the mini-van/SVU – much less park it.” Whew! Aside from being a horrendously long label – it’s also grossly unfair. I know many women (and men) that organize their lives so they can attend soccer games, but they also work hard, enjoy their marriage, and have adult lives.

    1. People who choose not to work for pay can also enjoy their marriages, work hard and have adult lives too. Just sayin’.

  12. I liked your interview this afternoon. Who was the third woman, by the way?

    I’m impressed by all the comments addressing the quote and addressing the false choice. To be perfectly honest, there is no way I would pick dandelions over financially supporting my children. In fact, I would consider myself an irresponsible mother if I did. I’m going to guess that that particular commenter and I have very different values when it comes to raising children.

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