I loved visiting my mom’s office growing up… getting to make myself hot chocolate in the break room, writing notes to her on the white board, and meeting cool men and women at summer office parties. But there were also times, like when I was dropped off to daycare early in the morning and spent summers in day-camp at the local community center, when I wished I was hanging out with my mom at home – just like all my other friends were.
Now that I’m finishing college and beginning to think about my future career, I am starting to think about how this balance of working and family might one day impact my life.
At this year’s Society of Women Engineer‘s annual conference in Austin, I spoke on a panel, sponsored by Emerson, about the experience of having a working mother growing up. I found the questions from the moms in the audience challenging – because it seemed like there weren’t always perfect, correct answers – yet also reassuring – appreciating the fact that uncertainty is normal and acceptable.
I was surprised to realize I learned a lot, even though I was answering the questions. The questions required me to think back and reflect on the way my parents were able to raise me and my sister while also both working time consuming engineering and business focused jobs. I had to consider the good and the bad, and the many trade-offs my parents made along the way. I am sharing some of the audience questions and my own answers to them as a way to give one example of how two busy parents raised two daughters. Hopefully it will give some ideas of what works (or what doesn’t work!).
How did your parents occupy your time before/after school and during the summer, both at a young age and as you got older (into middle school and high school)?
During school months, my parents did quite a few things with me and my sister over the years, including:
- Nanny (post-birth – age 2): She lived with our family.
- Pre-school (age 3 – kindergarten): All-day, 5 days a week, at a local Montessori.
- Before/After school daycare (early elementary): I was dropped off by my dad around 6am and picked up by my mom or dad around 6pm.
- Friend’s house (late elementary): I was dropped off early in the morning, then picked up from school by my mom in the afternoon.
- Home with my sister (middle school-high school): Took the bus by myself both ways.
Over many summers I did quite a few things, including:
- Consistent swim team practices
- Daycare at community center
- Vacation Bible School
- Week away at Grandparents’ house
- Basketball day-camps
- GirlScout sleepover camps
- “Discovery” day-camps at the local community college
- Engineering sleepover camps at local four-year colleges
- Summer school
How did your mom balance receiving paid help in cleaning or gardening and also teaching you to have responsible habits and cleanliness?
Earlier on we had a variety of chores charts which included tasks like vacuuming, mopping, taking out the trash, washing dishes, and getting rid of the dog poop in the yard. My sister and I would be assigned different tasks each week. According to my parents, these chores were not tied to our allowance, because they were “expectations, not voluntary jobs”.
In high school my parents hired a maid every other week, which alleviated many of our household chores. I remember this being a bit of a struggle for my mom – having to accept that she wouldn’t be a “perfect mom” who could – by herself – maintain a spotless house, delicious dinners (my mom wasn’t the best cook), and perfectly groomed kids (my sister and I spent a lot more time playing sports and music than doing hair and make-up), while also working a job. We didn’t talk about this much at the time, but in hindsight now I am so appreciative that my mom was open about both her imperfections and her insecurities. I feel so much freedom that a societally idealized form of “perfection”, one that I don’t even subscribe to, was not endorsed by my parents nor pushed onto me by them.
Did eating dinner as a family matter to you?
Not especially. We would normally have Friday dinner as well as Sunday lunch and dinner together. In elementary school we ate most weeknights together but in high school only several nights a week, at most.
Did it matter that your mom was present at awards ceremonies or sports games or extracurricular events?
These events were recurring in our house – with sports games on many weekends and piano performances, awards ceremonies, and school parties occurring at the end of each semester. It was special to me when my parents came to these events (which they did most of the time), because they got to witness my great achievements… or, in reality, support my mediocrities.
However, as I look back, the most memorable and meaningful times were when my parents supported me in the steps along the way. I remember my mom holding a huge blocking pad to play “defense” against me when I practiced moves between basketball practices and her words of encouragement as she sat next to me when I got frustrated and bored during piano practices at home. More than just celebrating my accomplishments, she helped me process when I got stressed out the night before school assignments were due and empathized with my early morning computer science competition practices (because I was a nerd). In this way, our interactions in the day-to-day of my extracurriculars were much more meaningful to me than her celebration at their conclusion.
What were the interactions between your mom and dad like?
My parents collaborated a lot on raising my sister and I, often taking turns transporting us places and spending time with us. Before I was born, they both decided to minimize their traveling to be at home as many nights as possible. I would often see them discussing the challenges in my mom’s workplace (although almost always by themselves, not with me or my sister) and I felt like both parents respected the others’ career. When I began high school, they started attending marriage counseling, which they have both highly encouraged as very helpful throughout a marriage.
What did your mom like to do in her spare time?
I don’t really know what my mom liked to do in her spare time growing up, other than a bit of reading or a short walk. Things seemed pretty busy.
I think my parents see me in college now and are a bit concerned, thinking that a pattern of constant busy-ness in their lives has rubbed off on me. They worry that rather than having hobbies and times for peace and rest, I fill my time with commitment after commitment. I’m not sure whether my mom’s own ability to balance life around her and her own self-care has impacted my own ability (or willingness) to do so.
Were you pressured into a STEM field? How could your parents have balanced pressure and allowing you to pursue your true interests?
Growing up, I was told that I could study anything I wanted to… as long as it was in the engineering school. Although this was always said with smiles, there was a strong push for an engineering degree, since my parents believed it taught problem solving skills that were less emphasized in other majors. A potential masters degree was seen as the outlet for a non-technical specialization.
As I was entering my freshman year of high school, my mom urged me to enroll in the Computer Science course. This paved the way for me to take classes in computer science for all four years. The classes gave me confidence in my technical abilities when I was deciding my college major and also a strong foundation for when I began my introductory college courses. At the same time, though, my parents encouraged me to build more socially oriented experiences by leading organizations and committed volunteering work. I feel like this gave me the flexibility to experience more diverse interests (like mentoring and organizing volunteer programs) while also learning how my technical and problem solving skills could meet social needs.
There are many discussions that can be had of the roles in families and in parenting. There are many pressures that women experience in career choices and personal choices. While these evolve and develop over time, my mom has consistently demonstrated love and humility in both her workplace and our home.
Things weren’t always perfect. But my mom, who (along with my dad) has worked professionally for three decades while also raising crying babies who turned into busy elementary school kids who turned into sassy teenagers who turned into stressed out college kids, has some words of wisdom for potential parents: “Give yourself some grace”. I find this quite reassuring.
More questions? Contact me and let me know!