Some of the most vivid childhood memories I have of my mom are of her talking about work, beaming and confident in her teal silk blouse and neck bow. For 15 years or so my mother was a technical writer, riding the tech boom of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. I would often feel a rush of pride as my mom talked about landing contracts over a dinner of chicken in wine and cream sauce (still one of my favorite meals).
But there were other times I would feel angry or ashamed as she would recount, dismissively, work relationships that ended in flames. I noted early on that she rarely had repeat clients and that some of her career choices were short-lived. The mixed messages left me with the takeaway that, despite the occasional wins, work was difficult and that career failures were unavoidable.
These memories and the conflicting feelings they evoke could have left me reluctant to talk about my career as a freelance writer with my own kids. But I actually feel the opposite. If I avoided mention of my career and work, I think I’d compromise my relationship with my children, their own development, and my duties as a mother. Sound harsh? Let me explain.
While we’ve made strides in accepting that women can be mothers without giving up their careers, we have a long way to go to accept that one can be a loving, devoted mother as well as a devoted, successful professional–at the same time. Many women draw an iron curtain between these roles when it comes to work and children and I’m not sure why. By indulging in the inherent tension between these two spheres, we’ve allowed a space for shame – shame when sacred family time is supposedly compromised with the mere mention of work. Hogwash, I say.
Your professional skills, successes and passions are some of the best parts of who you are. These are the very qualities that can further enhance your ability to parent. When you talk about scoring a new client, you no doubt glow–and your children pick up on that pride. When you tell them about a missed opportunity and express regret and then hope, they see your humility and learn from your resilience. Knowing about your career or your business means children come to know you as a complex person of her own in the world, not just the mom they see around the house.
But the memories I have of discussions with my mom now guide my discussions at mealtime with my own children. I know it’s not enough to just talk about my work, I also need to be mindful of how I discuss it, being careful not to fall back on complaints and rants about the day, but sharing what I learned, what was satisfying about work, and what brought energy and excitement to the day.
My kids are just 3 and 5 years old, so they may not grasp the finer points of running a successful freelance writing business. But my daughter pays attention when I put on a Diane Von Furstenberg dress and Kenneth Cole pumps and go to “a meeting in the city.” She knows what her mother does during the time before I come home and don Gap sweats and an H&M tank top and start roasting a chicken for supper. If I don’t share some details about the editorial brainstorming session or client pitch, it appears that I play a glamorous make-believe dress-up game that is shameful–or not important enough–to discuss. Instead, my daughter understands that this ritual is part of who I am as her mother and as a woman, and how I earn the money to buy that chicken we eat.
Which brings me to this: work is a basic element of life. It is our duty to send our children out into the world well-equipped with concrete business acumen and a positive attitude about earning a living. Professional facility is one of the greatest skills we can model for our kids. Last week I recounted how I had successfully negotiated a higher fee on a project, and explained what it means to “meet in the middle.” I hope many more chats like this mean my daughter will grow into a woman free of the usual female hang-ups about negotiation.
Recently, while babysitting, my sister-in-law texted me a picture of my daughter dressed up in a funny sparkly skirt, and my heels and handbag. Apparently, she told her aunt: “I’m a fancy lady going to a meeting in the city!” Likewise, my son recently propped up the folded Candyland board on the couch, and said, “This is my computer—I’m writing a blog!” That my children are so happy and proud when they mimic their working mom tells me our mealtime chats are working.