It is a privilege to have the support system I do, as a single mother, to be able to travel for work and continue advancing my career. I can take on leadership roles, develop relationships, and grow professionally. I previously wrote about Opportunities and Motherhood. I was describing my personal experience as a single mom taking advantage of professional travel opportunities. In the last month, I traveled twice over two consecutive weeks. The last couple of weeks have been challenging at work, which has bled into working from home most nights and on the weekend. This means I am not spending quite as much time with my kids and we may be having frozen pizza or fast food more often than I prefer.
I have accepted, and I honestly would even celebrate, that I cannot be some sort of “June Cleaver” mother. It’s not really what I want. What I have not yet shaken from my subconscious, though, is media’s influence on what families, and in particular good parenting, looks like. There are very few movies that celebrate a successful career-minded parent. Instead they are made to look like completely incompetent or neglectful parents. One example that comes to mind is The Devil wears Prada. Good parenting and career ambition are nearly mutually exclusive in media. It seems as though in order to be a good parent, one must absolutely forfeit all desire for career success.
I struggle with this. As I was making my travel plans, and even while I was traveling, I had a tremendous nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach, almost like guilt. It didn’t make sense though. I knew my kids were well cared for in my physical absence. I knew the opportunities were fantastic. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I somehow chose wrong. That I should have forgone the opportunities in favor of staying home to wear my mom hat. That feeling has stayed with me every single work trip, after-work happy hour, and every time I work from home on the weekends. That somehow my kids are missing out on something.
In my brain, I know it is healthy for my kids to see an ambitious working mother. It is good that we are in a situation that requires them to participate in household chores. But deep in my subconscious, all of the movies from the 80’s and 90’s, all of the TV shows I watched, advertising, etc. continue to surface. It reminds me I’m not like other parents. I’m not like other mothers. And I’m certainly not the idealized married stay at home mom. I am a single-mom.
Here is where intersectionality comes into play. If you google intersectionality, it is described as the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Let’s think about how this relates, since one may say I don’t fit the bill of someone living in a system of “discrimination” or “disadvantage”. I am an ambitious woman. Fine. Let’s ignore the challenge women have to be represented at all levels of many companies and assume that because I’m a woman, and roughly half of the population are women, I have an equal shot simply because I am ambitious and will work hard. I could show you studies that have compelling evidence that suggests otherwise, but let’s assume being a woman does not hinder my career ambition.
I have children, and that causes some sort of conflict with my ambition thanks to cultural standards and media. OK, so whatever. Well, beyond being a woman, there are studies that show that women with children have a significantly more difficult time advancing their career. Women are still left with managing households in addition to any career they have outside the home, because we are expected to “do it all”. In the long run, this hinders the careers of many women. But what about the children? Why am I so focused on the career deceleration? We’re told that we are the best thing for our children. Even if being home with them is not fulfilling, that we should recognize that it is our duty to be there for our children and sacrifice our careers. We are told it is the price you pay to have a happy home and happy children. Where are all the shows and movies about the happy family with 2 parents who work outside of the home. I can think of 1 show like this off the top of my head: Madam Secretary.
Now add that I am a single mother. So now, I am an ambitious single mother. Seems like a walking contradiction based on what society and media would have one believe. Single mothers are poor and destitute, right? They rely on child support and are too distracted to advance their careers, since they don’t have a spouse to help split the responsibilities at home, right? I am not just some outlier. There are a lot of ambitious single mothers out there. Some of us hide our true identities because people may treat us differently when they find out.
Just the word single mother or single parent brings up so many feelings in people. People who have experienced periods of time where they were solo-parenting while their spouse traveled commiserate with the struggle. Politicians blame single-parents, more specifically single-mothers, for the “downfall of society” – whatever that means. Some divorced and single fathers have harsh feelings of contempt about single mothers because of child support and parenting time disagreements. Even the children themselves raised in single-parent households have a variety of feelings when people discuss single parenting. For me, the feeling being a single parent gives me is pride. I am absolutely proud of my children for the people they are becoming, and I am proud of the example I am setting for them. Though pride is probably not the first word most people would use when they describe how “single parent” makes them feel, it is mine.
What happens, though, is other peoples feelings of single parenting spills out of them in the way they treat me. Without words. People act differently when they know I am divorced and a single parent. Some treat me with admiration. Some with curiosity. And yet some, though not many, are dismissive. As though my existence as a single mother in the workforce challenges their core values. I have yet for anyone to tell me to my face that I, as a single mother, am causing the downfall of society, though it does feel like that when politicians start talking about it. But the way they make me FEEL is different.
In many ways I am different and maybe I should feel different with how people interact with me. There are times, though, no matter how well the intentions, it feels like people assume that being a single mother somehow makes me not ambitious in my career. I am here to prove them wrong. It is OK for me to NOT WANT to have a life akin to the 1960’s. I have no desire to have a man “take care of me” or to even go back to the life I had before. I do not believe career ambition is mutually exclusive with raising healthy, happy children, and not even as a single mother. This, for me, is an “and” situation. I am ambitious, and I have children, and I am divorced, and I am proud of every piece of me. I know I will have to fight the nagging feelings that tell me I’m supposed to be with my kids 24/7, and instead create a new sense of what it is to be an ambitious single parent in the workforce in 2018 and beyond.