Almost 50 years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, working motherhood continues to generate controversy. From the Atlantic's recent cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" to Ann Romney's defense of stay-at-home moms during the presidential campaign, moms who bring home the bacon still have the power to stir up strong emotions.
The issue isn't likely to go away anytime soon. A study released by the Pew Research Center in April found that more young women between the ages of 18 and 34 value "being successful in a high-paying career or profession" compared to 15 years ago. Two in three young women said their careers were "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them, compared to 56 percent in 1997. At the same time, the vast majority also said being a good parent was "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them.
So how is a woman supposed to manage both goals successfully? In I Love Mondays: And Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms, author Michelle Cove argues that finding ways to let go of much of the guilt that drags down many working moms is half the battle. In interviews with dozens of women, she found that many of them deeply enjoy their work—even if they feel like they shouldn't admit it.
But finding ways to embrace both work and parenthood can be the key to a more balanced existence—although Cove probably wouldn't use that word. U.S. News spoke with Cove about her findings, and how women really can "have it all," whatever that means to them. Excerpts:
You write that you don't like the term "work-life balance." Do you feel the same way about the term "having it all?"
I hate them both. In terms of "having it all," I still don't understand what that means. To some women, it means you can have a high-powered career and a family, or you can have either at all, or you need them all running smoothly. It's a phrase that never comes up when my girlfriends and I talk.
You found that a lot of women really like their jobs.
My first question was always, "Tell me what you like about your job." While most would say that they need the paycheck, it was never in their first three answers—it was down the list. I know they need the paycheck, but it was so much more about retaining a sense of identity and having something they care about that's just their own—being with other adults and problem-solving, talking with other adults. All of those pieces of adult satisfaction were really high and really valued. This might be the first time in history when women can say, "I really like going to my job."
Why can women say that now?
I don't know why it's changing, but I can tell you what prevented it. When you ask people, "What are the hard parts of being a working mom?" they talk about the frustration, hardship, and resentment. But if you dig down further, the guilt goes much deeper. It seems to really tap into a questioning of maternal instinct. They say, "I really love having a career, and I love my family."
But when those two things butt heads, you have to pick one. Sometimes work will be a priority, and it makes women second-guess themselves. Within two seconds of talking to women, the guilt would come up—guilt over not paying enough attention to their kids and not putting enough face time in at work.
How can women stop feeling so guilty?
After every phone interview I had, before I could say thank you, the woman would say, "Thank you so much." It was almost a therapy session. They could lay it out there and talk about the hardships. They wanted to know, "Am I all alone on this? Are others handling it better?" Talking about it helps sort through some of those feelings.
We can also look for small ways to unwind throughout the day. The biggest one that I walked away with, which has been life-changing, is that first thing in the morning, I spend three to five minutes doing deep breathing. On each exhale, I say the word "calm." The woman who recommended this to me is a yoga instructor. To start each day by centering yourself makes an enormous difference.
What were some of the other "confessions" from working moms that you heard?
Many women feel guilty or worried about their families when they go on business travel, but there's also a delight in getting to stay in a hotel room and to take care of your own needs without anybody screaming, "Mom!" across the house. That's pretty joyful.
Is that where the title of the book comes from?
There's the idea that we're all supposed to groan when Monday comes around, but for many of us working moms, we're excited to go back to work and use our brains.
A lot of the mothers you interviewed also seemed to be really struggling to juggle both of their roles.
Yes—if you are leaving early or skipping lunch hour, you feel terrible. You worry about it hurting your professional life and whether you can advance. We like socializing, but we also like getting home to our family. On the flip side, if you go home early to get to your kid, you worry about whether you're leaving other staff with your burden and whether it will catch up to you.
To help deal with that, you recommend that women stop apologizing so much, both at home and at work.
Apologizing is a default setting. When we're in an uncomfortable situation, we hope it will smooth things over. But what are we apologizing for? Did we actually do something wrong? If not, what message are we sending, especially to our kids?
You also recommend against projecting sadness onto children.
That happens a lot—we feel torn or sad about missing an important event, or we call home from a business trip and talk to a child who is doing fine. Talking about how sad you are makes things worse; instead, we can talk to friends or a spouse.
For women that are sad about missing a milestone, whether it's the first rollover or walking, we can be sad about that, but we also have to remember that we were there for the entire journey of getting them to that place. We coached them on it, boosted their spirits, held their hands—instead of beating ourselves up that we couldn't get there in the moment, we can celebrate that we really helped them get to it in the first place.