It was one of those mornings. Fellow parents, you know the kind. Both my two-year-old and my three-year old insisted on Mommy’s help for every step of their morning routines. Despite his willingness, my husband was an utterly unacceptable substitute.

Getting the little one out of the crib? “No, Daddy! Mommy!!”

Going down the stairs? “Carry me!!”

Putting on shoes and socks? I’m sure you can guess how that went.

As a result, instead of making the thirty-minute commute to my office early so that I could prep for a live radio interview at 8:45 a.m., I rolled into my neighborhood Target just in time to grab a table at the Starbucks and take the call. As long as I was there, I picked up a few essentials. After finally arriving at my office around 10 a.m., I exchanged emails with a male colleague—also the parent of a toddler—who was working from home. I work from home several days a week myself, often throwing in loads of laundry between checking off items on my professional to-do list.

The details may vary, but I’m scarcely unique in weaving together work and family life in this way. Data from the most recent American Time Use study found that 57 percent of wage and salary workers “had a flexible schedule in which they were able to vary the times they began and stopped working.” And, unsurprisingly, “parents living with children under age 18 were more likely to work at home than workers who were not parents with children at home (30 percent, compared with 22 percent).” 29 percent of those parents reported that they worked from home in order “to coordinate their work schedule with their personal or family needs.” That data was collected in 2019, before the pandemic dramatically accelerated the trend toward work-from-home arrangements with flexible hours.

Academics have taken note of the evolution of working parents like me—particularly working moms. In her 2019 book Making Motherhood Work, Washington University sociologist Caitlyn Collins included an interview with a woman named Chelsea, who dubbed this flexible, ever-changing interplay of work and family responsibilities “the swirl.”

When you’re a working mom, there is no hard line between work and home. So, you swirl from one to the other, it’s all swirled together. You get online at seven in the morning and you send a couple of emails that have to go out, and then you’re making breakfast, and you drop the kids off and maybe at lunch you either go for a run yourself or go to the grocery store because you have no other time to do it. But then after you put them to bed, you’re back online. It all bleeds into each other. . . . There is no guilt for doing it that way because—you know, it’s good and bad. . . . It allows me to do what I need to do and see them as much as I can. 

Is the swirl a good thing? Collins notes Chelsea’s ambivalence, observing that she “seemed to sacrifice her sense of balance, time, and boundaries for the sake of her job and family—in alignment with dominant ideals about the self-sacrificing mother.” Those demanding ideals, along with the “ideal worker” model that is exalted in many workplaces, exert a powerful influence on moms’ decisions about how to structure their work and family life.

As the metaphor of “the swirl” suggests, combining motherhood and career can be both rewarding and exhausting. Still, even with all its challenges, I believe that the development of flexible and creative working arrangements is a positive one for mothers. 

There has been a quiet rise of mothers who are continuing to do meaningful professional work—whether part or full-time—but who are also acting as their children’s primary caregivers. Because there is no easy name for this group of moms, they often go undetected. They’re not leaning in, but they’re not opting out either. These moms may work full or part-time, from home or at a traditional workplace, but they are united by the fact that they prioritize flexibility in their career choices, choosing arrangements that allow them to put family first while also pursuing a professional vocation and contributing to their family’s financial wellbeing. My generation is making the old dichotomy of “working mom” vs. “stay-at-home mom” obsolete—and that’s a good thing.

What do women see as ideal?

In the fall of 2019, I administered a brief survey to 115 women who volunteered to speak with me about their experiences balancing life and career. As part of that survey, I asked them to describe their ideal work situation.

I was not surprised to find that the most commonly listed characteristic of an ideal job was flexibility. I was a bit surprised by the self-deprecating tone with which women often described their desire to integrate caregiving with a meaningful career. This gave the impression that they saw—or expected others to see—this desire as unrealistic. One woman described her ideal situation as a “Pie in the sky dream of a flexible, part-time, work from home job I could perform while my kids were sleeping or at classes that would utilize the skillset I built over 10+ years in my career and keep my résumé fresh for when my kids were older and I might want to go back.” 

One mom said she would prefer “part time work that’s well paid, creative and fulfilling but doesn’t interfere with raising my child or housework. LOL.” Another was a bit more blunt: “There is no ideal—that is part of the reality of motherhood/work. I have flexibility, which is as good as it gets.”

Women’s attitudes toward their careers and broader cultural norms surrounding work have both shifted in significant ways in recent years. Still, the two most common belief systems that quietly shape mother’s decisions about work and family have been in place for decades, namely, that work and motherhood–if done right–are all-consuming commitments. They pull women in opposite directions, imposing high standards in terms of both motherhood and career achievement. When they’re uncritically internalized, these attitudes can lead women to feel like failures both at home and at work, ruthlessly criticizing themselves for their inability to do it all.

Intensive mothering and the ideal worker model

In her influential 2007 book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, sociologist Pamela Stone found that “the ideology of intensive mothering” (earlier identified by sociologist Sharon Hays) played a significant role in nudging successful career women to “opt out” from paid work in order to become stay-at-home moms. In Making Motherhood Work, Caitlyn Collins defines “intensive mothering” as the belief that

motherhood and marriage should be women’s primary, all-absorbing commitment. This cultural ideal stipulates that women find meaning, creativity, and fulfillment in caring for a husband and children who are fragile and in need of a mother’s loving care. Fathers are thought to lack the nurturing skills necessary to adequately care for a child.

As the question mark in Stone’s title implies, although these women embraced the rhetoric of choice, Stone found that their choices were less free than they might initially appear. Before making the decision to cease working entirely, many of the women attempted to negotiate part-time working arrangements but were denied. For many of the high-achieving women Stone interviewed, “their inability to forge successful, sustainable, and real flexible arrangements was a major factor in their decision to quit.” Although they largely expressed satisfaction with their decisions, these high-achieving women had initially “had alternative visions of how to work and be a mother.” Unfortunately, “their attempts to maintain their careers on terms other than full-time plus were penalized, not applauded; it was quitting that earned them kudos.”

This is thanks, in large part, to the widespread devotion to the “ideal worker” model. As Collins explains,

this schema suggests that employees’ primary emotional allegiance and time commitment should be to their jobs, which reward them with independence, status, and gratification. The belief of the ideal worker pervades modern workplaces, working systematically to advantage men and disadvantage women.

The ideal worker model is problematic on many levels. Perhaps most obviously, it discounts the value of pursuits other than work. By encouraging people to base their identities on their roles as autonomous and productive workers, it devalues our inherent connectedness and disdains the idea of dependency upon others. It relegates caregiving to the status of a second-class pursuit for those who can’t hack it in the workplace. It encourages materialism, consumerism, and competition, and it rewards habits that are destructive to healthy family life.

The ideal worker is also a fundamentally male model. Inconvenient biological realities such as pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum recovery, and breastfeeding are not easily accommodated in workplaces where everyone is expected to work feverishly for years on end or risk falling behind. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg counsels women to see career progression not as a ladder, but as a jungle gym. At times, she suggests, the right move might be lateral. Yet Sandberg and others still work within a framework that tries to suppress what makes women distinct from men. As commentators such as Mary Eberstadt have observed, it’s no accident that reliable hormonal contraception and abortion-on-demand accompanied larger cultural changes such as the sexual revolution and women’s entrance en masse into traditionally male professions.

Rigid and restrictive gender stereotypes and limited opportunities to pursue excellence outside the home were clearly deeply harmful for women. Unfortunately, pretending to be just like men hasn’t made us much happier.

Alternative metaphors: swirl vs. mosaic

The normalization of remote work and flexible schedules have made it easier for women to realize their alternative professional visions rather than opting out entirely. Yet, many women still feel pulled in opposite directions, constantly swirling between the demands of work and family. The image of “the swirl” carries with it a sense of chaos and loss of control. That accurately captures the reality of many working moms, but it’s not the only way to conceptualize this experience.

Time-management expert Laura Vanderkam emphasizes the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, cautioning against narratives that focus on the difficult moments of working motherhood. Instead, in a 2017 book called I Know How She Does It, she argues for a more holistic and optimistic perspective.

In the discussion of women’s life choices, we often focus on the crazy moments, or the difficult moments, which makes sense. They’re darkly entertaining. They get the press. Other moments—like eating breakfast with your kids or playing board games together on the weekend—aren’t talked about….

But what if this logical leap—these stressful things happened, and therefore life is crazy and unsustainable—limits our stories? The human brain is structured for loss aversion, and so negative moments stand out more starkly than positive moments, particularly if they fit a popular thesis.

This is an important point. The stories we tell ourselves have a significant impact on our sense of identity, self-worth, gratitude, and, ultimately, our happiness. They may also send a message to young couples who are deciding whether or not to have children. In an era of declining birth rates and rising isolation, unrealistically negative portrayals of the experience of parenthood can exact a serious cultural cost.

Vanderkam rejects simplistic narratives of constant stress and busy-ness. She also rejects the false dichotomy exemplified by an online commentator’s explanation of why she’d opted out and become a stay-at-home mom. That mom wrote, “If you get your joy from a paycheck and a pat on the head, go for it. I prefer hugs and dandelions.” Vanderkam counters,

Look at the whole of life, though, all the minutes that make up our weeks, and you see a different picture. Those questions lobbed at successful women as if any given cocktail party were a presidential news conference—How do you do it? How do you manage? How do you balance?—have a straightforward answer. Life has space for paycheck and dandelions, business trips and Pokemon cakes. We can carry many responsibilities and still revel in our own sweet time.

Vanderkam proposes a different metaphor to replace the emphasis on moments of conflict and stress, one that provides a striking contrast to “the swirl”: a mosaic. “Many people,” Vanderkam observes, “have placed the tiles of their professional and personal worlds together in ways that give them space to strive toward their dreams at work and home.” To gather a pool of data that shows how this works in practice, Vanderkam recruited a group of high-achieving mothers who earned more than $100,000 per year and had at least one child under 18 living at home. Then she had them keep a detailed time log for a week, recording how they spent each one of their 168 hours. Clear patterns and lessons emerged from the data, which she explains in detail in her book.

One particularly striking finding was the prevalence of “split shifts.” Many women leave work at a reasonable time, eat dinner with their kids, put them into bed, and then continue to work until their own bedtimes. Work often found its way into weekends, too. Vanderkam defends this practice, observing that “If you want a balanced, full life, there can be serious upsides to doing some work on the weekends.” When I spoke with her, Vanderkam pointed out that

three quarters of the women I studied did something personal during their work hours in the course of the week they tracked . . . stuff like visiting your kid's class, or leaving early to get a workout in. But then the flip side of that was also true: three quarters did something work-related during what would be in the past considered personal hours: the nights, weekends, or early mornings.

When I asked her whether she saw this lack of clear boundaries between work and family as a good thing or a bad thing, Vanderkam emphasized that flexibility and interplay between work and family was actually “what made their lives possible.” Even if “they might be doing work at 9 p.m. on some night,” she told me, “that meant that they could go visit [their child’s] class at 9 a.m.” Vanderkam sees the rise of flexible work culture as a net benefit for moms. “If work could only be done between nine and five in an office,” she reflected, these mothers’ “lives would look very different.”

When I asked her if certain temperaments might be more suited to this blending of work and family life, Vanderkam readily conceded that, for some people, it is healthier to maintain strong boundaries between work and home. But, she reflected, “I think for many people, it’s just practical to not have strict boundaries, given the way that work can be done these days.”

Vanderkam emphasizes the need to step back and look at the weekly mosaic of your own 168 hours to make sure the ratio of tiles is healthy and sustainable, and that it reflects your personal values, career goals, and priorities for your family life.

Do mothering and career intrinsically conflict?

In 2013, Baylor professor Elizabeth Corey published an important piece in First Things, No Happy Harmony,” that insightfully critiques our cultural attempts to make kids and career work for women.

In that piece, Corey notes that, when describing the difficulties modern women face in reconciling motherhood with the pursuit of professional success, cultural commentators are eager to prescribe solutions. Many, drawing on intersectionality and feminist sociological approaches, believe that only systemic structural change can resolve the conflict women feel. Others take a more individualistic approach, counseling women to take control of their own lives and strategically craft a system of supports—nanny, house cleaner, egalitarian husband, etc.—that will allow them to enjoy the best of both worlds. But all see the tension as a problem that can be solved.

Corey disagrees. In her view, “career and motherhood will always tragically conflict.” That’s because “the personal qualities required by professional work are directly opposed to the qualities that childrearing demands. They are fundamentally different existential orientations, and the conflict between them is permanent.”

When I spoke with Elizabeth, I asked her if her views on this topic had changed in the six years since she published her essay. At first, she hesitated, asking me what I thought. I answered honestly, telling her that I think it’s possible to pursue excellence in the service of someone or something outside of yourself. I also told her that I think that the virtues inculcated by motherhood can bear fruit in the workplace as well. She responded,

I actually completely think you’re right about that.

I should tell you that when I wrote that essay, I was just coming out of the tenure process . . . but since that time, I’ve taken on some administrative work. And you are 100 percent right. As an administrator, you’re actually caring for other people. I spend so much of my day talking about people’s families and their sick brother, or, you know, the kinds of things that go on with them personally, and not work stuff at all. Not that we don’t do work—we do. But the interactions that are really meaningful are those ones where I’m like, “Okay, I’m not your mother, but I am somebody who is charged with your good. And it’s my job to care for you.” 

In other words, Corey believes that being a mother makes her a better administrator. Many of the women I spoke to related similar experiences. Motherhood often enhances women’s interpersonal skills, such as compassion and awareness of others’ unspoken emotions. Mothers also, by necessity, hone their multitasking, organization, and time-management skills. Numerous mothers told me that they became more efficient after having children. When work time is precious (and requires being separated from one’s children), there’s a clear motivation to avoid distractions.

For decades, women have been trying to be like men in the workplace. But what if we didn’t? What if, instead, women consciously applied our distinctly feminine and maternal habits of being in the workplace? Mothers have the potential to undermine inhumane workplace norms in a powerful way. If mothers have the support and courage they need to leave positions that do not support healthy family life—or to negotiate for concrete policy changes such as paid maternity leave and flexible working arrangements—they could exercise formidable cultural power in combating the dominance of the ideal worker model.

Mothers, like all human beings, are finite creatures. We seek to love and be loved by others, and we grow in that capacity through suffering and sacrifice. We have particular innate talents, and we can find fulfillment and a sense of achievement by cultivating excellence. When parental and professional roles come into conflict, we must make choices that demand trade-offs.

No one can do it all. But, as many of the moms I’ve interviewed have discovered, perhaps happiness doesn’t require doing it all or never feeling conflicted. Perhaps, instead, it requires deciding what gives your life meaning, accepting the internal conflicts you experience, and then making choices that tell a story you’re proud of.