Lara Bazelon’s latest book, Ambitious as a mother (published in April), is certainly an ambitious book, but it does not quite live up to expectations. It’s compelling and interesting; but this is not the book I was expecting.
The caption, presumably aimed at mothers, reads: “Why prioritizing your career is good for your kids.” I expected Bazelon to come up with an argument about, well, why prioritizing my career would be good for my kids. Instead, the book turned out to be essentially a personal memoir disguised by its polemical Universalist title.
Bazelon is a public defender turned law professor who is, in her own words, “in love…with my work.” Ambitious as a mother includes details of the all-encompassing passion with which she approaches her career, often an approach she is painfully aware of would generally be viewed as to the detriment of her two children. Some of the most notable information includes: Bazelon’s insistence on a trial date in a criminal case that she says would have the best chance of freeing her client, even though it was her daughter’s birthday ; the fact that she traveled several hundred miles between cities when her children were young, missing several evenings a week with them; and the admission that her devotion to her career led, definitively if not indirectly, to the divorce, her professional priorities having ultimately been unable to be reconciled with those of the family of the father of her children.
“I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday because it was more important that this innocent man be free” is a matter of sacrifice, not “career.”
Like most parents, I identify with Bazelon’s insistence that work-life balance does not exist. I also share his belief that it is important for children to know that the world does not revolve around them, that is, to understand that adult life is full of competing priorities and constant optimization.
Beyond these broad premises, Ambitious as a mother offers little generalizable to its audience: those mothers privileged enough to have “careers” rather than “jobs” (not to mention a real recognition of the majority of mothers, who are not so lucky).
Yet the book raises, perhaps unwittingly, interesting questions about genre, work, family and ambition— and how women (and men) who are lucky enough to have options might want this four-way intersection to look like.
When Bazelon says that “prioritizing your career is good for your kids,” she’s referring to her own anecdotal relationship with every loaded word in that phrase — prioritize, career, good, and kids — and those of other people sorted on the shutter which strongly supports it. specific celebration of female professional ambition. Addressing each of these evocative words in turn could help us see the oversights in Bazelon’s book and think beyond that.
What does it mean to “prioritize” a career? Bazelon bucks the hackneyed ideal of the perfectly haired woman who stays home to bake organic cupcakes every birthday. Bazelon argues that such a creature of popular myth should not be viewed with self-sacrifice or melancholy if you, like Bazelon, prefer to put professional matters before culinary matters.
Fair enough. I have literally never baked birthday cupcakes for any of my three children. Maybe it’s because I “prioritized” my career; I am a working mom and always have been. Or maybe it’s because whether or not I had a traditional “career” I would have prioritized a dozen other things, from household chores to catching up with friends at home. cook something I’d rather spend that it’s time. Getting kids to understand that they’re not the center of the universe doesn’t require prioritizing a career per se. It simply requires prioritizing something one deems more important than living in the image of an ideal, mythical mother.
I wish Bazelon had just written a pure memoir: she would have written a much more relatable book if she had strived less for relatability.
In part, my psychological freedom from the maternal expectations that seem to haunt Bazelon may be due to the fact that I am about ten years younger than her. I feel I have the freedom to say that I prioritize my young children over my career (even without organic baked goods), precisely because this former mom wars the caricature of what it looks like to put your children first has no impact on how I think – on motherhood or on “career”. For college-educated women like me, today’s technology has made the old pair of working moms versus stay-at-home moms obsolete. There are stay-at-home moms with awesome hustles online. There are also mothers working with greater flexibility to facilitate piano lessons after school (emails can still be sent at night while faxes often cannot) and so on.
This greater ability to blur the lines between work and family does not decrease our stress levels; in fact, it almost certainly increases them. But it also increases the logistical and psychological options for self-identification for those of us who started our careers after, rather than before, smartphones and wireless internet became ubiquitous.
Bazelon’s father is a lawyer who she says often put his job before his family, and she followed in his footsteps by becoming a public defender. When Bazelon is on trial, the lives and freedoms of his clients are at stake. Whether or not we share Bazelon’s extreme progressiveness around criminal justice, we can all recognize that it is not just about a career, but a vocation.
To the extent that Bazelon makes an argument in the book, it’s that putting that calling (that of public defender) ahead of that of motherhood (sometimes) is reasonable and even laudable. I expect many emergency room doctors, Marines, and others with similarly challenged professions can relate. But that doesn’t apply at all to people with any freedom of action as to when and how they work (which, again, is not more people). “I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday because it was more important that this innocent man be free” is a matter of sacrifice, not “career.” Replace it with “I intentionally missed my daughter’s birthday so I could make an extra sale” and it not only loses some of its shine, but everything.
What about “children” and what is “good” for them? Bazelon has two children. If she had four, like her own mother, the examples of prioritization, quality time, and busyness in the book would be rendered useless by the amount of work required to care for a larger family. To be the optimal healthy”quite well“Mother of four children simply takes at least as much time as being sickly pathological”devouring mother” to one.
Like my own mother, who left an important job to stay at home when I was almost 4, I have three children. Also like my mother, I don’t have to fly to a different city every week to bring my children home, to the point that others often have needs beyond their own. Much like me, my kids have a reasonably steady parade of tantrums and scraped knees from siblings — not to mention issues involving their parents’ conventional jobs and extended families, as well as their school, community, and work. other aspects of a busy life – to make their own lack of centrality in the larger universe very clear.
And this despite the fact that my choices regarding family and career (and, for that matter, those of my husband) run counter to Bazelon’s advice.
When my eldest son was born, my husband quit his job at a big law firm for a job at a small one with better hours. He took a big pay cut and accepted the new uncertainty in his career path. In the meantime, I’ve always chosen jobs that give me the most flexibility to be with our sons. My husband and I are highly educated and professionally ambitious. yet clearly our revealed preference is to be (what we consider) optimally present to love, discipline, and teach our boys in their formative years.
It would be easy — but in equal measure arrogant and self-referential, since we can’t know the counterfactual — for me to say that those decisions were good for my kids. After all, like Bazelon, I can theorize — but can’t really know — whether my choices to live somewhere in that vast gray area between organic cupcakes and regular nights out will impact the men my sons will become. Like Bazelon, all I really know—and, more importantly, all I need to know to take ownership of my decisions without assuming they constitute a thesis—is how I feel called to behave ( and how grateful I am to be able to behave) as a mother.
That’s why I wish Bazelon had just written a pure memoir: she would have written a much more relatable book if she had tried less for relatability. Possessing the idiosyncrasy of her own career, as well as the personal choices that surrounded it, would have made her story a thought-provoking biography, rather than a failed attempt at parenting and career advice.