The Tragic Conflict of Motherhood and the Quest for Personal Achievement

November 02, 2013

By Lea Z. Singh |

Scene One

The other day, one lady who read my interview with the Home Renaissance Foundation discussed it with me, and we talked a bit about the challenges for women of staying home with children versus working. At one point, this nice lady said to me: "You'll see, when your daughters are all grown up, and so bright and able: will they want to settle for mediocrity and only stay home with children?"

Scene Two

Some time ago, another Catholic lady I know was thinking out loud with me about her teenage daughter’s future. She herself is a stay-at-home mom, one of those wonderwomen who juggles volunteer activities while baking cookies and holding several children in her octopus arms. She radiates in her homemaker role and I naturally assumed that she would be shepherding her daughters along that same path. Instead, she left me speechless with “I think the best fit for her would be law.” 

Smoking the Joint of Success

Given a talented and capable daughter, how many parents could resist the urge to help her spread those wings by focusing on a future career?

Everywhere across this land, there is a pervasive obsession with achievement. Even in those seemingly counter-cultural corners where religions and traditions keep their strongholds, the cult of personal achievement has clouded people’s thinking like a cloud of marijuana.

We are all striving mightily for self-perfection and self-realization. We have long bucket lists, lofty personal goals. We have places to be, things to do, and ladders to climb. Often we pull our families with us on this modern journey and make them part of our personal quest for perfection.

We don’t just run, we run marathons; we don’t just work, we have successful and important careers; we don’t have just normal children, we all have “gifted” children. Many of us are also hoarding possessions as further markers of our achievements.

Our society is beholden to the idea that personal achievement is the key to happiness. And in some ways, this idea is not completely crazy - it's true that personal success opens a lot of doors. Success breeds wealth, possessions, comfort, power, visibility, fame, recognition, and even social appreciation. Success can get you everything from monster homes to five star vacations to coveted dinner invitations; success can make you both a posh millionaire and a hero to the masses. People listen to you when you are a "somebody", and even your completely uninformed personal opinions will suddenly take on the importance of being newsworthy.

Worldly success can, indeed, get you close to a kind of pseudo-happiness, perhaps the closest substitute there is for real personal happiness (which of course doesn't require any of those things that we tirelessly strive for - check out this great YouTube video on that topic).

Mothers Striving for Success? The Tragic Dilemma

As daughters, women are often encouraged to succeed in the conventional way: that is, to focus on personal self-perfection and self-realization through academic, extra-curricular and career achievement. For many of us, this is the way we have been brought up, and this is how we are raising our own daughters.

But for women especially, the pursuit of personal success is tragically complicated, as Elizabeth Corey discussed in her brilliant exposition in First Things last month. In a tour de force that should be required reading in this perpetual debate, Corey offers a profound understanding of why personal achievement and motherhood go together like oil and water. Consider the following quotes from her article:
...The sorts of endeavors that allow us to use and develop our God-given talents are very different from caring for the children God has given us.
...The problem is that the serious pursuit of excellence requires a self-culture. The excellence is within us and must be developed...
 ...caring for others requires us to put aside (at least temporarily) the quest for achievement, not just to make time but to create space for a different mode of being. Worship and love: These require no particular talent or cultivation of the sort I have been describing. They are gifts of the self, not achievements of the self.

She further says:
“if I am right, these two endeavors require different orientations of the self, and we simply cannot approach marriage and family in the spirit of achievement at all. If we try to do so, we will find ourselves frustrated and conflicted. For well-behaved or smart children are not markers of our success; children are ends in themselves, to be loved and cared for as individuals. They need from us something other than our talents; they need us, full stop.”

I have heard mothers say that they are focusing on their careers in order to be role models for their children, to make their children proud of them, or to illustrate for their daughters that they do not have to settle for being in the home and that they can have all the career options they want. 

Unfortunately, the truth is that the career achievement of their mothers means very little to children. What children really need from their mothers is something completely different, as Corey points out: they need the gift of self. The very self that we do not want to give up, because it is so busy on a quest for personal achievement. The very self that has been programmed to focus on itself, and to keep taking and working and climbing higher.

Self-giving has a foreign flavour; it does not taste like worldly success. And indeed, it is not at all the same. It is radically different, and in a way, it is the opposite. The quest for personal success requires self-improvement and self-perfection: it requires focus on the self. The orientation towards caring for others, on the other hand, requires self-giving and self-donation: it requires forgetting about the self, it calls for self-sacrifice.

When seen through conventional achievement-oriented glasses, giving of oneself to others in a caregiving capacity is viewed as "settling for mediocrity" and can make us feel like failures.

But in reality, giving oneself a a gift to others is exactly what is needed in the family, or in other situations where we are called upon to provide care for those who are vulnerable or in need, whether they be children or the sick or the elderly.

It turns out that properly understood, the life of mother has more commonalities with the life of a religious sister like Mother Theresa than with the life of a career woman like Angela Merkel.

Hence, when a woman wants to be of importance in the world, her quest will inevitably tragically conflict with her role as a mother, because these two roles require a completely different, and actually conflicting, orientation of the self. Imagine Mother Theresa trying to be Hillary Clinton at the same time! Obvious conflicts there.

The Life of a Career Mom

In my daughter’s gymnastics class I recently met a grandmother, and one of the first things she told me is that she is single-handedly raising her daughter’s two children, aged 5 and 8. She told me that her daughter, an only child, was always “very bright”. She apparently holds three Masters Degrees, a Law Degree, and now a “very important job.” In fact, her job is so important that she only took 1 week of maternity leave with each of her babies ("how can you slow down when your career is going so well?", the grandmother explained to me.)

Incredibly, the grandmother completely supports her daughter’s choices. This, despite her earlier admissions that her grandchildren have repeatedly tried to call her “Mommy,” that they go home only to “eat supper and sleep” and that they spend even half their weekends at her house. The grandmother is still proud of her successful career daughter, and is glad that she can watch the children so her daughter can have “peace of mind” and not worry about their well-being.

This grandmother's daughter, the super-busy career mom, could easily have been me. And you know what? Her daughter probably thinks she “has it all” - the job, the kids, the money, the perfect babysitter.

And in some ways she does have all those things. She has it good.

But tucked into that arrangement there is still a price tag, and someone has to pay: as usual, it is the children who foot the bill. We are so accustomed to giving children the short end of the stick that no one even questions it anymore, it is just assumed that adult desires will take precedence over children's needs. The desires of adult women for self-realization through careers are obviously more important than the developmental needs of their own children, wouldn't everyone agree?

The children of this "very bright" career woman may have a mother-figure in their grandmother, but they do not have their mother. In reality, they hardly know their mother, and she hardly knows them.

Maybe this fact explains the permanently morose look on the face of that little girl whom the grandmother brings to gymnastics (she is, by the way, a classic overscheduled child who is already being groomed for the same kind of life as her mom).

What should we tell our daughters?

When we steer them towards focus on career and extra-curricular achievement, what kind of twisted life path are we unintentionally weaving for our “bright” daughters?

We have only good intentions. We want our daughters to be happy in life, to realize their talents, to achieve the most they can achieve. Our daughters are bubbling over with talents in every direction, they are excelling in school and in their extra-curriculars. We do not want to steer them towards "settling for mediocrity."

It’s hard to aim low, and focusing on family life sure seems low these days. It just isn’t enough to want to be a good wife and mother, there’s got to be something more - and the brighter the girl, naturally the more demanding the expected career.

I don't have all the answers. It is a tough dilemma and there are no easy solutions. Achievement and success really do add lots of nice things to life. Living like Angela Merkel is more pleasant in many ways than living like a poor no-name nun. What should we tell our daughters?

Maybe the best thing we can do is inform them about this dichotomy, this unsolvable difficulty in women's lives. In the end they will make their own choices, but we can let them know that it's okay to step off the achievement-focused hamster wheel.

Quck Quiz

For those of us who have daughters, here is a quick series of questions.

First, the multiple-choice answers: 
(a) Successful career woman like Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Midori Goto, Sheryl Sandberg, or others
(b) A religious sister who lives a quiet life taking care of others in places like orphanages and seniors homes, or teaches in schools

(c) A wife and mother taking care of her family
 Now the questions:
1. From the list above, who do you think your daughter most wants to be like? Who are her greatest role models?
2. From the list above, who do you most want your daughter to be like? Honestly? Is this the direction in which you are guiding your daughter?

Final note: (b) and (c) are in fact different expressions of the same self-giving orientation. (a) is the self-focused orientation, very different from (b) and (c).

Photo courtesy of BookMama at

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