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A woman working at a machine at the offices of Martin's Bank in London, March 1961. (Photo by Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images)
Bert Hardy Advertising Archive—Getty Images

One morning a few months ago, I got a phone call from my mother in the middle of the workday. “I did something totally crazy,” she said in a hushed tone.

My first thought was that she’d gotten a tramp stamp.

“I asked for a promotion for the first time in my life,” she said. “It was really scary.”

This got me thinking about how important my mother’s job has been for me as her daughter. Despite all the anxiety that working moms are somehow “slacking” on parenthood, I don’t remember any missed dance recitals or thrown-together dinners from my childhood (although I’m sure there were some). Instead, I remember serious conversations about what I wanted to be, and practical advice about how I would get there. I remember meeting friends she’d made at work, which reassured me that I, too, could have my own life even once I had a family. And I remember her telling me, over and over, that being a woman does not mean you have to live “a life deferred onto the next generation.”

My mom’s job didn’t make her a worse mom, it made her a better one.

There’s lots of research to show that kids of parents who work full time turn out no worse than kids who have a mother at home at least some of the time. But for some moms who work, those studies provide little comfort when they’re racked with guilt over serving dinner at 8:30 again. So this Mother’s Day, I spoke to some friends whose moms also worked full time, to see what they remembered about their mother’s jobs.

“My mother’s career has improved my life in every possible way,” my friend Antonia Kerle told me. “It’s not just that she’s made me ambitious, but she’s also made me believe that I really can do what I want to do and be happy doing it. I think lots of women may hear that, but they don’t have a role model for it.”

Antonia just finished a stint in the Peace Corps and is currently getting a master’s in labor relations at Cornell. Her mother Kathryn Kerle is the head of risk reporting at the Royal Bank of Scotland. She told me she never had doubts about working full time throughout her girls’ childhood, because she knew she was setting a good example for them. “I want my daughters to feel that there are options for them,” she said. “And how better to do that than by showing them how you can have a full and vibrant family life without dedicating yourself 100% to child rearing?”

Another friend, Isabel Strauss, also says her mother’s job at the MacArthur Foundation has been instrumental in forging her own ambition. Without her mom’s career as an example, “I wouldn’t have tried to get good grades, I wouldn’t have tried to get into college, I wouldn’t have pursued a career in the arts, I wouldn’t have done anything that was a risk, because what would be the point?” she told me.

“You know the expression ‘Do as I do, not as I say’? It’s easier to trust people when they do what they say to do also,” she said, adding that her mother had taught her about hard work and professional behavior. “So because my mom’s actions matched the advice she was giving me, I believed them.” Strauss just graduated with a degree in art history from Harvard and is pursuing a career in set design in Chicago.

Hannah Habte told me that after her parents separated, her mother went to computer classes at night school so she could get a full-time job as a paralegal to support their family in Sacramento. Now that Habte is teaching third grade with Teach for America in New York, she says she realizes she can work just as hard as her mom did. “I think that my mom being able to do all of those things has given me the work ethic I have,” she said. “Now I have a full-time job, and I go to graduate school at the same time. It’s stressful, but I don’t feel like it’s overwhelming, and that’s because I had a mom who was doing a million things at once.”

Habte also said her mother acts as her unofficial professional guide. “I’ve learned a lot from her about sexism in the workplace, especially if your boss isn’t taking you seriously as a woman,” she said. “She’s dealt with that her whole career, especially as a paralegal. She taught me that I should speak up and say something but be respectful at the same time.”

Of course, working is usually more of a financial decision than a parenting one, and Kathryn Kerle told me that her income made it possible for their family to achieve a certain standard of living. But it also sets an example of financial and personal independence for her daughters. “Having your own source of income gives you options and gives you leverage in a relationship that you don’t otherwise have,” she said. “So if I stay in my marriage, it’s because I want to, as I’m perfectly capable of leaving.”

But even if we’re grateful for our mother’s careers as young professional women, did we feel the same way when we were younger? I asked my friends if they ever remembered a time when they felt neglected because of their mom’s jobs. “No,” said Isabel. “Definitely not,” said Hannah. “Never,” said Antonia.

Neither did I.

During that phone call a few months ago, I asked my mom why she asked for a promotion.

“I did it for you and your sister,” she said. “So you’d know you could do it too.”

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