AMBITIOUS LIKE A MOTHER
Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids
By Lara Bazelon
There is little that is new in Lara Bazelon’s brisk, engaging book “Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career Is Good for Your Kids.” Her message — working mothers are good for children, embracing ambition is good for mothers — is one that has its moment in book form at least once a decade or more.
This is not a criticism. It is a lament. Bazelon, a litigator and law professor, does as good a job as any of her predecessors at laying out her case: that most women not only need to work, they want to; that the rewards are not only economic but also psychological; that it is time for society to help working mothers rather than building obstacles and ladling on the guilt.
But while reading her well-reasoned arguments, I found myself vacillating between admiration, agreement, anguish and anger.
“Striving for success in the workplace has the potential to make women better mothers, not worse ones,” she writes. Why is this a thesis statement, an opening argument, rather than a universally accepted fact? Why, nearly six decades after Betty Friedan argued that women could be fulfilled by roles other than “housewife-mother,” does it still need to be said? Can you imagine a book with the message that paid work is good for men and that they need not apologize for their success? That’s even before we get to the fact that this idea that women work mostly for the satisfaction, rather than the money, is a relic from the economy of the 1950s.
At about that time discussion of “The Opt-Out Revolution” entered the lexicon; I take some blame for that one as it was the title of my 2003 New York Times Magazine piece about how a privileged cohort of professional women, tired of the added demands placed upon them, had responded by walking away from ambition altogether. Over the next decade Linda Hirshman (“Get to Work,” 2006) and Sheryl Sandberg (“Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” 2013) warned about the risks of opting out, with counterpoint by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who had cautioned that putting off pregnancy, as younger women were starting to do, was not the answer, either (“Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children,” 2002). In 2015 Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family” responded with an investigation into the institutional and societal reasons so many women felt they couldn’t win this flawed motherhood-vs.-workplace construct.
And now make room on the shelf for Lara Bazelon. Though filled with interviews with a deep and diverse variety of couples with children, at its heart “Ambitious Like a Mother” is the story of how Bazelon’s struggle with career and family has compared and contrasted with those of her own mother and grandmother.
“Never be at the financial mercy of anyone else,” her mother, Eileen Bazelon, told Lara and her three sisters, who were all born during the 1970s. Eileen’s mother had been widowed when Eileen was 3, and despite her college degree “the options for women — particularly women with small children — were limited” in the late 1940s, her granddaughter writes. This left Eileen determined to take care of herself. Marrying while still a college student, she graduated from medical school in 1970 soon after her husband graduated from law school.
Mr. Bazelon excelled at his career, making partner in his law firm, and at one point taking on a complex case that had him commuting to Florida from the family’s home in Pennsylvania one full week every month. Dr. Bazelon’s career required more compromises. She specialized in psychiatry rather than her first choice, nephrology, because the hours were better and she could see patients in a private office a few minutes from the house.
“On the one hand, my father was supportive of my mother’s professional aspirations, which was relatively unusual for their generation,” Lara Bazelon writes. “On the other hand, my father made it clear that for the marriage to work, my mother needed to make sure their kids were fed, dressed and transported to various activities, dinner was on the table on time, and the house was clean.”
Or, as her mother put it when interviewed by her daughter for this book, “Dad wasn’t discouraging as long as it didn’t interfere with him.”
Bazelon writes, “I learned that the life I wanted was my father’s, not my mother’s. I was not willing to make her sacrifices. I wanted his ambition, not her constraints.”
She certainly had his ambition. She too became a lawyer, married another litigator and had two children. When her children were small she almost literally followed her father’s path, flying from her home in San Francisco to her work in Los Angeles every Monday morning and returning every Thursday night. Her marriage collapsed.
“Matt could not express happiness for my professional success,” she writes. They divorced. She found a tenure track teaching position at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she directs the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics and holds the Barnett chair in trial advocacy. Shared custody, she says, “creates protected time pockets where I can be productive,” something she craved while still married.
No, she doesn’t advocate divorce as a solution to the ambition dilemma for mothers. She doesn’t advocate anything in particular, as hers is not a prescriptive book. While she touches on the familiar appeals for better child care options, federal guarantees of paid maternity leave, and talking frankly with your partner about division of labor before having children, her focus is more about the head space and emotional struggles of women who feel their ambition makes them a failure as a parent.
This is how her message differs from the pantheon that came before: Hewlett warned women to heed their biological clocks; Hirshman lectured them not to let other women down by leaving the workplace; Sandberg told them to grow a spine. Bazelon is reassuring, self-aware and direct. After all, this book grew out of her New York Times opinion piece titled “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids” (she hadn’t, but the headline made the thing go viral). For some readers, she might be a bit too direct; others will feel seen.
It is tempting to conclude that Bazelon’s book represents its moment much as her predecessors did. But there is a looming elephant on nearly every page. It is being published in what may be the end of the pandemic, or may just be a lull between variants; either way, the workplace she writes about — and rails against — will likely no longer exist in the way she experienced it. Over the past two years, ambition fell to the wayside as parents (mothers more than fathers) struggled to simultaneously home-school and remain employed. Bazelon cites a 2021 McKinsey survey, which found that “nearly one in four women with a child under the age of 10 was considering leaving the work force. … By contrast, only 13 percent of fathers were contemplating a similar decision.”
Against this sea change, Bazelon’s call for women to “embrace the simple truth that when we are happy and fulfilled, our children benefit, even though that necessarily entails imbalance,” sounds a dissonant note, jarring in these new times.
“This book is about reframing a debate that has become stale and suffocating,” she writes.
Yes. But so were all the others.