Review: Motherhood and the impossibility of perfect work-life balance
Lara Bazelon’s latest book, Ambitious Like a Mother (published in April), is indeed an ambitious book, but one that does not quite meet expectations. It is cogent and interesting; but it is not the book I expected.
The subtitle, presumably addressing mothers, reads: “Why prioritizing your career is good for your kids.” I expected Bazelon to offer an argument about, well, why prioritizing my career would be good for my kids. Instead, the book turned out to be essentially a personal memoir disguised by its title as a universalist polemic.
Bazelon is a public defender turned law school professor who is, in her own words, “in love…with my job.” Ambitious Like a Mother includes details about the totalizing passion with which she approaches her career, often an approach she is painfully aware would be popularly considered to be at the expense of her two children. Some of the most noteworthy tidbits include: Bazelon’s insistence on a trial date in a criminal case that she thought would have the greatest chance of freeing her client, even though it was on her daughter’s birthday; the fact that she commuted several hundred miles between cities when her children were young, missing several evenings a week with them; and the admission that her devotion to her career led, definitively if indirectly, to divorce, as her professional priorities ultimately could not be reconciled with the familial ones of her children’s father.
“I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday because it was more important that this innocent man go free” is the stuff of sacrifice, not of “career.”
Like most parents, I identify with Bazelon’s insistence that perfect work-life balance does not exist. I also share her confidence that it is important for children to know that the world does not revolve around them—that is, to understand that adult life is full of competing priorities and constant optimization.
Beyond these broad premises, Ambitious Like a Mother offers little that is generalizable to its audience: those mothers who are sufficiently privileged to have “careers” rather than “jobs” (let alone any real acknowledgement of the majority of mothers, who are not so fortunate).
Still, the book does, perhaps unintentionally, raise some interesting questions about gender, work, family and ambition—and how individual women (and men) who are blessed with options might want that four-way intersection to look.
When Bazelon says that “prioritizing your career is good for your kids,” she is referring to her own anecdotal relationship to each loaded word in this phrase—prioritize, career, good and kids—and those of hand-picked others that support her highly specific celebration of female professional ambition. Addressing each of these evocative words in turn might help us to see the oversights in Bazelon’s book and to think beyond them.
What does it mean to “prioritize” a career? Bazelon pushes against the well-worn ideal of the perfectly coiffed woman staying home to bake organic cupcakes for every birthday. Bazelon contends that such a creature of popular myth is not to be regarded with self-abnegation or wistfulness if you, like Bazelon, prefer to put professional matters ahead of culinary ones.
Fair enough. I have literally never baked birthday cupcakes for any of my three children. Maybe it is because I’ve been “prioritizing” my career; I am a working mom and always have been. Or maybe it is because, regardless of whether I had a traditional “career” or not, I would have been prioritizing a dozen other things, from domestic to-do list items to catching up with friends to cooking something that I would rather spend that time on. Making it clear to children that they are not the center of the universe does not require the prioritization of a career per se. It just requires the prioritization of something that one deems more important than living up to the image of some ideal, mythical mother.
I wish that Bazelon had just written a pure memoir: She would have penned a far more relatable book if she had striven less for relatability.
In part, my psychological freedom from the mothering expectations that seem to haunt Bazelon may be because I am about a decade younger than she. I feel that I have the freedom to own that I prioritize my young children over my career (even sans organic baked goods), precisely because that old mommy wars caricature of what it looks like to prioritize one’s children has no purchase on the way I think—about motherhood or about “career.” For college-educated women like me, today’s technology has made the old working-mom-versus-stay-at-home-mom binary obsolete. There are stay at home moms with formidable online side hustles. There are also working moms with greater flexibility to facilitate after school piano lessons (emails can always be sent at night whereas faxes often could not) and so on.
This greater ability to blur the boundaries between work and family does not decrease our stress levels; in fact, it almost certainly increases them. But it also increases both the logistical and the psychological self-identification options for those of us who began our careers after, rather than before, smartphones and wireless internet became ubiquitous.
Bazelon’s father is an attorney who she says often put his job ahead of his family, and she has followed in his footsteps, becoming a public defender. When Bazelon goes to trial, the lives and freedom of her clients hang in the balance. Whether or not one shares Bazelon’s extreme progressivism around criminal justice, we can all acknowledge that this is not just a career, but a calling.
To the extent that Bazelon makes an argument in the book, it is that putting this calling (that of a public defender) ahead of the calling of motherhood (at times) is reasonable and even laudable. I expect that many emergency room physicians, Marines and others with similarly high-stakes professions could relate. But this does not apply—at all—to people with any agency in when and how they work (which, again, is not most people). “I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday because it was more important that this innocent man go free” is the stuff of sacrifice, not of “career.” Replace it with “I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday so I could make an extra sale” and it loses not just some of its luster, but all of it.
What about the “kids,” and what is “good” for them? Bazelon has two children. If she had four, as her own mother did, the book’s examples of prioritization, quality time and busyness would be rendered irrelevant by the amount of work required to care for a larger family. Being the healthily optimal “good enough” mother to four simply requires at least as much time as being the unhealthily pathological “devouring mother” to one.
Like my own mother, who left a high-powered job to stay home when I was nearly 4, I have three kids. Also like my mother, I do not need to fly to a different city every week to drive home for my children the point that others often have needs that supersede their own. Just as I did, my kids have a reasonably steady parade of siblings’ tantrums and skinned knees—not to mention issues involving their parents’ conventional jobs and extended families, as well as their school, community and other aspects of a full life—to make their own lack of centrality in the wider universe plenty plain.
And this is despite the fact that my choices around family and career (and, for that matter, my husband’s) cut against Bazelon’s advice.
When my oldest son was born, my husband left his job at a large law firm for a job at a small one with better hours. He took a big pay cut and accepted the new uncertainty of his professional trajectory. Meanwhile, I have always chosen jobs that give me utmost flexibility to be with our sons. My husband and I are highly educated and professionally ambitious; yet clearly, our revealed preference is to be (what we consider) optimally present to love, discipline and teach our boys in their formative years.
It would be easy—but in equal measure arrogant and self-referential, since we cannot know the counterfactual—for me to say that these decisions have been good for my kids. After all, like Bazelon, I can theorize—but I cannot actually know—whether my choices to live somewhere in that vast gray area between organic cupcakes and regular nights away will have any impact on the men that my sons become. Like Bazelon, all I really know—and, crucially, all I need to know to own my decisions without presuming that they constitute a thesis—is how I feel called to behave (and how I am grateful to be able to behave) as a mother.
This is why I wish that Bazelon had just written a pure memoir: She would have penned a far more relatable book if she had striven less for relatability. Owning the idiosyncrasy of her own career, as well as of the personal choices that have surrounded it, would have made her story a thought-provoking biography, rather than an unfulfilled attempt to give parenting and professional advice.