Are stay-at-home mothers selfish for regretting their careers?

February 24, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

As a stay-at-home mother for the last six years, I've come a long way in my views on the working vs. homemaker "mommy wars". When I quit my job and started my homemaker journey after the birth of my first daughter, I wanted to be the ideal mother who sacrifices herself for her family. I had come to believe that this was God's will for me as a woman and a mother. My not-so-subtle prejudice was that working moms of young children are being selfish and failing their kids.

I was hardly unusual in my beliefs. While not many women choose to stay home anymore, negative opinions of working moms are still widespread in our society. Despite the gains made by women in the workforce since the 1970s, American society remains very ambivalent about whether mothers should be working at all.

But now that I've been home for the last few years, I've learned the hard way that there are heavy costs associated with completely abandoning one's career in order to stay home. Looking back, I was not quite aware of how these costs would make themselves felt in my own life.

Many of these costs were discussed recently by stay-at-home mother Lisa Endlich Heffernan, in a column where she broke the unspoken solidarity on her side of the 'mommy wars' by publishing a list of regrets about staying home with her children.

Prior to having children, Heffernan had a promising but demanding career as a trader at Goldman Sachs. Unable to strike a manageable balance, she quit her job to stay home with her two young boys. Her husband was also a trader, and afterwards his career soared.

Today, Heffernan could be content as the wife of a millionaire; the Heffernans are well-known philanthropists at places like Yale and Harvard. What's more, Heffernan eventually achieved her own level of success as the author of three books: a New York Times bestseller on charitable giving, a history of Goldman Sachs and a study of the crash of the telecom industry. She is a blogger at The Atlantic and runs her own popular blog.

So why isn't Heffernan satisfied with being a 'professional' mother and wife? Why does she still experience career regrets when she seemingly has it all, at least in the eyes of many others?

If you ask journalist and former stay-at-home mother D.C. McAllister, Heffernan's regrets are just the sour grapes of materialism and selfishness. Writing in The Federalist, McAllister launches into the predictable lecture mode:
Heffernan lists nine things she wished she’d known when she decided to give up her career. Most are regrets. This is understandable because there are costs to staying home. There are sacrifices. But these are either material or focused on the self—my success, my financial security, my sense of self-worth, my need for the respect of others....
This is a point to be remembered when raising children: It’s not all about you! It’s not about what you get out of it. It’s not about your success. It’s not about your self-esteem. It’s not about your material achievements. It’s about serving, loving, and doing for others. It’s about storing up treasures that can never fade. And you know what? When you focus on others and truly love them more than yourself, you get those very things you thought you’d lost—confidence, security, respect, and peace. No regrets.
Here's what upsets me about all this. In her piece, McAllister never alleges that Heffernan's regrets are unrealistic or far-fetched. Indeed, McAllister implicitly agrees that Heffernan is on to something. She acknowledges that there are costs to staying home, and admits that "Most women can relate to what Heffernan has written. I certainly can. "

What really bugs McAllister, then, is not that Heffernan is making stuff up, because she's not. What bugs McAllister is that Heffernan has the audacity to complain about it. Heffernan dares to look at how staying home has negatively affected her own life, rather than keeping the focus on the lives of her children. 

The implicit stereotype here is that a perfect mother, a stay-at-home mother, should expect to put herself last and shouldn't even count her losses. But when did motherhood become a weird masochist endurance contest where we gain our badge of "good mother" by how much we can sabotage our personal aspirations and career prospects without flinching?

We need a paradigm shift

It's time to stop stoning Hefferman and start transforming the conversation. McAllister seems to accept that Heffernan rightly identifies the costs of staying home for many mothers, but she stops there. She expects that "good mothers" will simply accept things as they are and 'suck it up'. 

What's missing here is the realization that things need to change. This is the most important step of all. If Heffernan's article inspires any anger, it should not be directed at Heffernan but at the rigid structure of our workplaces. Society needs to bring down the penalty for educated, professional women who want to provide primary care for their own young children. 

Mothers are people too. Just like everyone else, they too have a natural human desire to actualize their own talents, passions and dreams. Why does our society continue to hold the attitude, at least subconsciously, that the role of mothers is to put themselves aside and focus on enabling their husband's and children's pursuits? (This kind of attitude is implicit in McAllister's charge of selfishness).

The world has changed since the 1970s. Women are now highly educated, highly capable, and highly ambitious. Heffernan never wanted to gain lifetime success as the pretty flower on her husband's hat. She had aspirations and abilities of her own, and plainly loved her career. Nonetheless, she felt forced to abandon her work as a selfless sacrifice for her children's well-being. Today, she only wishes that things could have been different. She writes:
I do not regret time spent with my kids, not for a second. Were the years wasted? Of course not. But I regret leaving the workforce, almost every day. I wish someone had told me that it is possible to regret something and be glad that you did it all at the same time.
What Heffernan and many women like her want, and what they need, is the possibility of balance. They don't want to be forced into that impossible Catch 22, the black-or-white choice to either work like a maniac and never see one's children, or to abandon their careers completely and probably never go back. This kind of non-choice is unacceptable in the 21st Century; modern women and families deserve better than that.

In another article, Heffernan puts it this way:
If I could wind back the tape, have a do-over, what would I have done differently? Looking on at my grown and nearly-grown sons, I am grateful for the gift of time we had. Yet, I wish I had tried to keep a finger, a toe or a hand in the working world to ease an eventual return. I did not have a job well suited to part-time work, and work at home was technologically impossible at the time. But, the solution required imagination, not capitulation, and with hindsight, I would have recognized that over time, my parenting and career would both ebb and flow, but neither would — nor should — ever end.

Is change really possible?

Our working culture needs a complete overhaul. Many of our current workplaces are built around the ideal of the corporate worker who is effectively a 'corporate monk': a person with no family obligations, no outside interests, and no limits on hours, who works nonstop with a religious fervor. Trying to live up to this kind of ideal hurts not just mothers, but also fathers.

We need to step beyond seeing childcare as a women's issue. It is a family issue, and fathers are an important part of the solution. Just as mothers suffer from the implicit stereotype that childcare and housework is all their lot, so fathers suffer from the stereotype that they are just providers who don't need to see their families much. The workplace must transform for everyone.

Families need generous paid parental leave. Families need manageable working hours, flexible and creative working arrangements, and a performance-driven (rather than face-time driven) workplace. Families also need off-ramps and on-ramps for both mothers and fathers who want to exit the workforce for a period of time, to provide full-time care for their young children.

Yes, change is possible. In Heffernan's words, it requires "imagination, not capitulation." Change is already happening in some workplaces. My hope is that in the coming generations, there will be no more women with Hefferman's regrets.

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