A few years back when my kids were two and five, my husband took them on a three week trip from San Francisco to India and Dubai to visit our families. He was in between jobs and had a couple of months off while I was in an intense work season, and we made a conscious choice for me to stay home while he traveled with the kids. I missed them a lot (more than I had expected) and went to bed with tears on many nights.
While on the plane, my husband got several looks and explicit questions like, “Where is the mom?” to which he comfortably responded, “She is working back home.” He received all kinds of responses that implicitly or explicitly stated some version of:
“Wow, you are brave to be on a 20-hour flight solo!”
“What kind of a mom is she to not be with her kids for three weeks?”
When he shared how many people offered to help him on the plane, I was grateful—but also a bit frustrated. Because the truth is, a mother traveling solo is not likely to receive that same support.
I find that this emotion of guilt, of not feeling good enough stems largely from these unrealistic expectations that we put on mothers.
A few months later, I was alone with the kids on our trip back to San Francisco from India and, lo and behold, nobody asked me where my husband was or why I was alone. I did see some empathy in the eyes of mothers who essentially communicated, “We know this is hard and we see you.”
As I sit here and reflect on the stark contrast between the two experiences, it breaks my heart how much our world accepts a father to have a career and an identity outside of his family, yet doesn't treat mothers the same.
When a father goes to a grocery store with two toddlers, we say bravo. But when a mother does the same, we call it her job. We expect mothers to crush it at work, climb the ladder and also serve a home-cooked dinner at night, but if dad works a full day and serves frozen pizza, we call that a win.
Why the double standards for mothers and fathers? And who is calling out the costs to mothers that come with these double standards?
I work with a lot of women and mothers in my practice, and I find that this emotion of guilt, of not feeling good enough stems largely from these unrealistic expectations that we put on mothers. These expectations are ultimately hurting not just individual women and homes, but society at large—dare I say.
Yes, dads like my husband deserve a huge shout-out when they are able to travel alone to a different country with young kids—but so do mothers. Because let’s be honest: It's just as hard for them, too.
All mothers find meaning in parenting, but if they also find meaning in their careers, callings, friendships, community service, hobbies or anything else, society should honor and respect that just as they do for a father who wants to be out on a Friday afternoon playing golf with his buddies.
I feel sadness, but also a lot of anger about how our culture has shaped us and how much bias we all have. I am reading Lara Bazelon's new book “Ambitious Like a Mother” and it’s really forcing me to examine my own biases. Despite my best intentions, the deep-rooted cultural and social conditioning still has its grips on me, and I am committing to unlearning and relearning.
If you are a mother reading this, here are three things you can do to help move the needle in the right direction:
1. Acknowledge your emotions.
Give yourself permission to be with your anger, rage, sadness, frustration and whatever other emotion comes up. Until we give ourselves permission to acknowledge the situation in front of us, we can't create the change that is needed. Your feelings are valid and you don’t need to hide, suppress or pretend that everything is OK when it is not.
2. Examine your own bias.
This one is tough because it is deeply rooted and it can often be hard to go inward. Are there moments when you have different expectations from your fellow mothers vs fathers? Do you use different words and statements for each of them?
3. Raise awareness and speak up.
The most important one. If you notice that your mom expects you to do the dishes every night and not your partner because of her beliefs on gender roles, find an opportunity to have that conversation, as chances are, she is likely unaware of her bias and the impact that it has on you (though in some cases that conversation may be too emotionally risky).
If you notice a team member cheering on a dad who is leaving a meeting early to go to soccer practice, but there is a subtle frustration when a mom does the same thing, bring it up directly with the person. These are hard conversations, but having them is what will create the much-needed change in our world.
Yes, this topic breaks my heart, but it also gives me hope in the power of our collective action. I see hope when I see fathers talk about this issue and then step up to advocate for their wives. I see hope when I see fathers stay home so their partners can focus on their careers. I see hope when same-sex couples intentionally examine what the gender roles can look like in their home. I see hope when each of us does our part in the world today.