Is being a working mother hard on your kids? 70 percent of U.S. mothers with children under the age of 18 are working — some 31 million women as of 2013. But 60 percent of U.S. adults still think children are better off with one parent at home. Since I’m the daughter of a working mother myself — and raised my own children while working on as one of the first women executives on Wall Street, these numbers struck me as a stunning disconnect. To find out where the truth lies, I surveyed more than a thousand people ages 23-44 about their childhood, and interviewed working mothers and their grown children. The results are gathered in my new book, My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know.
Most of the adult children of working mothers that I spoke to felt they actually thrived due to their mothers’ careers, learning invaluable skills, such as resilience and work ethic. And the results of the thousand-plus adult children surveyed underscore the fact that a mother’s career does indeed enhance her children’s lives, well into adulthood.
Still, we can’t fully lean in unless we’re sure our children will be fine. To best integrate profession and parenting, here are my top ten tips:
1. Don’t Feel Guilty About Work: Children are proud of their working mothers and say their mothers gave them a strong work ethic. In fact, when you talk about feeling guilty and blame issues on your work, children think you are turning the conversation away from them and towards yourself. Lose the guilt!
2. Find Good Childcare and Relax: Looking back, grown children of working mothers have warm memories of their childcare providers. Kids are easy – it’s the parents who are hard to please. Find a childcare solution that works for your family, and go to work knowing your child is well cared for.
3. Stay in Touch With Children and Teachers During the School Years: Children can have academic and social issues during their school years, so parents need to stay on top of things. But the children surveyed reported bullying and learning disorders at the same rate whether or not their mothers worked. Get the help your child needs, but know that staying home won’t solve the problem.
4. Be There For Your Children, Just Not All the Time: Children of working mothers, especially daughters, say their mothers raised them to be independent. Children need to be allowed to make decisions, take responsibility, and learn from their mistakes. Have their backs, but don’t try to do everything for them.
5. Use Sports and Other After School Activities to Keep Children Occupied: Children of working mothers often stay busy after school with sports and other adult-supervised activities. The mothers surveyed felt this was preferable to too much time with babysitters. The secondary benefit is that children of working mothers reported more good friends than children whose mothers stayed at home. Choose reliable after school activities for your children, knowing they will be learning new things and meeting new friends.
6. Embrace Other Mentors for Your Children: Children are exposed to many adults other than parents, and many have a strong positive impact. In the survey, children most often cited teachers as the adult who taught them skills, gave them confidence, and broadened their perspective. Grandmothers especially make children feel loved. Coaches teach skills. Welcome the “village” that surrounds your child and broadens her horizon.
7. Get Together For Dinner As A Family – Even If It Is Only Once a Week: Family dinner won out as the favorite routine family activity by a vote of nearly two to one over other activities. Children like eating dinner with their parents, and hearing what is going on in their lives. If you cannot get together as a family during the workweek, do it on weekends. It is not about food, it’s about conversation and connection.
8. Use Holidays to Pass on Traditions: Children – and mothers – love holidays. Thanksgiving was the holiday most often mentioned in the survey, and food was the star. Children have fun cooking with their mothers in the kitchen, preparing food for a large group, and seeing family and friends. Holidays do not need to be perfect: do what you enjoy and outsource the rest. Less stress means you can all enjoy the holidays more.
9. Treat Your Children As Individuals, Because They Are: Children love time alone with their mother. While family activities are fun, children long for one-on-one time, when they are the focus of their mother’s attention. Children from families with wide age ranges especially appreciate activities focused on their individual interests. Make time for each child so he can feel special.
10. Have Fun With Your Children. They Grow Up Quickly: Children love doing anything with their mothers. Asked about their favorite childhood memories, many cited simple tasks, like grocery shopping and house cleaning. Turn even the most basic chores into time spent with your children. They love being with you.
Pamela F. Lenehan was one of the first female partners on Wall Street, a former C-suite executive of an NYSE company and a high tech start-up. She combined a climb to the vanguard of business leadership with a passionate dedication to raising her own children. An avid believer in the power of women to lead as well as parent, she serves on the boards of three publicly traded firms, and is also the author of "What You Don’t Know and Your Boss Won’t Tell You: Advice from Senior Female Executives on What You Need to Succeed." Her new book is “My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know.” Learn more about the author at www.mymothermymentor.com.