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By Jill Hamburg Coplan
JUNE 14, 2000

Why Isn't Everything Enough?

This mother has a strong business, a full-time nanny, a part-time job -- and she's still not happy


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Here's the core of a longer complaint from a mother of two children under five. Her life looks ideal -- she has an extremely successful home-based business, a part-time schedule, and live-in child care:

I always feel guilty. When I'm with my kids, which is where I want to be, a little part of me is always thinking about work. When doing my work, I feel guilty I'm not with my kids. I feel incredibly fortunate I don't have to put them in day care or leave the house to work, but it's a constant battle, and it becomes overwhelming. The kids make me feel it -- they know how to play me.

--J.C., Boulder, Colo.

It's an obnoxious fact, but there it is: No matter how beautifully a working mother has fashioned her life, a little voice tells her she's doing something wrong. It's a "lose-lose-lose" situation: If you work and have young kids, you're criticized. If you stay home, you're a failure for not being a Supermom. If you manage to do both, you fear you're not doing either job well.

Blame misogyny, blame the traditional division of labor that still prevails (though dads are doing more than ever before). It's certainly not news that working mothers come home and start their second job. Bracket all that mental pollution, and consider instead the facts.

Mothers who work serve as role models for their children. Studies too numerous to cite show that having two breadwinners does not harm children. Rather, the kids benefit. Beth Sirull, co-author of Creating Your Life Collage: Strategies for Solving the Work/Life Dilemma (Three Rivers Press) interviewed thousands of working mothers, and many described their work's impact on their daughters in glowing terms. Your work is part of what makes you who you are. If you love it, don't feel guilty. Embrace your dual roles, and your children are likely to follow suit.

A dad who is too distracted by work can contribute to behavior problems in kids, but children benefit by mom's involvement in her work. That was the surprising finding in new research by Stu Friedman, Wharton professor and the author of Work & Family -- Allies or Enemies? "Behavior problems are prevalent when dad's psychological involvement in his career depletes his availability to the kids," but "when mom is psychologically involved in her career, the self-esteem she accrues benefits the children," he found. They're more likely to see the value of working hard at school, for example.

Sufficient relaxation is crucial for working mothers. More from Friedman: "The more time mothers take for their own relaxation, the better they feel about themselves as parents, the better they feel about their child-care arrangements, and the fewer their children's behavior problems.... Time for self-help builds self-esteem. With that comes an enhanced capacity to attend to kids' needs."

The brain works in odd ways. People get their best ideas driving, in the shower, jogging, brushing their teeth. So maybe you get yours playing catch or reading Goodnight, Moon. Says Sirull, who has a nine-month-old child: "I feel so fortunate that I don't have to be tied to my desk, away from my kid, to get work done." Skip the guilt, and pat yourself on the back for your being so efficient.

You can be too rich or too thin. And it sounds like this reader's privileged status is the cause of more whining than is really justified. Some interesting research says African-American working moms aren't suffering from this epidemic of baseless guilt. They've grown up, often being the latest in a long line of working mothers, believing wage-earning is an integral part of being a good mother. And so it is.

Send your questions to

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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