Mothering Takes More Than a Moment

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Thursday, August 29, 2002

By Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D

The departure of Karen Hughes from the White House is a Catch-22 for those of us who believe moms and dads should make parenting a non-negotiable priority. The obvious on the plus side: we’ve gained a pretty impressive poster person. The down side? Petty legions clamored to fill the real estate that Hughes occupied who are not similarly troubled by the call of hearth and home.

Do we really want the prerequisite for leadership of our country to be –no moms or dads need apply? Only the child-free and child-less?

Karen Hughes’ story is a tale writ large of today’s women and work. This century finds women reaching unprecedented heights-women now receive the majority, 56.9%, of all master’s degrees conferred and now sit in the counsel of presidents. Even so, with occupational opportunities flung open, women still feel the age-old pressures of marriage and parenting. Moms with kids under six report that today it is harder than even four years ago to balance family and work demands.

The glass ceiling has long since been breached-Karen Hughes is yet another exceptional woman who broke through and others can as well. The more intractable problems, however, are the competing priorities: professional accomplishment versus family harmony, strength, and satisfaction. Study after study reveals that women at the top are unmarried or divorced and childless. The way the modern workplace is structured makes being a professional and a parent difficult for both men and women.

High achievement requires, according to American University’s Joan Williams, being the “ideal worker” –available totally to the employer anytime, anywhere, anyhow, fully engaged. There are stages in a woman’s life when she can be an “ideal worker” and other times when the consequences to her family are just too high. It’s not a model that includes soccer games, piano recitals, and trips to the emergency room. Witness Karen Hughes’ much-touted “family-friendly” schedule-she left the office at 5:30 for the Midweek Moment to spend time with her son . . . once a week.

Hughes’ departure dispels the fashionable mantra that “affordable day care” is the answer to the career woman’s prayers. The reasoning goes that if only women had access to quality childcare, if only their children’s needs could be met through credentialed, caring professionals, then they could pursue their careers with confidence and freedom. However, the Hughes story tells us that even when quality care for her children is available and affordable, there is no substitute for mom; mothering takes more than a moment.

It’s not really surprising that after only a year, Karen Hughes left a dream job solely because her son and husband were miserable and homesick for Texas. Still, the fact remains that plenty of Hughes’ male colleagues have children (doubtless some of whom aren’t overjoyed at having been uprooted to come to Washington) and they don’t appear to be leaving. Hitting the wall (or ceiling) for women is part institutional-ideal worker demands-and part immutable-motherhood demands.

Many have questioned Karen Hughes’ decision to move home. Why couldn’t her son and husband have taken better advantage of this amazing opportunity? If they had shown more adaptability and support, would this talented woman and one of the most powerful women in America, have had to leave such an important job? Still, Karen chose to return to Austin with her family because she doesn’t confuse success with “thinking like a man.”

Hughes went back to Texas to home and hearth. What a truly amazing picture: a woman who had been influencing the world, is herself influenced by a universe of one. One boy. Is not this a portrait of the very essence of motherhood? She is an example of the enduring truth lost to many American materialists: the well being of a woman is inextricably linked to the strength of her family.

In the end, we are left with a lingering irony. If Karen Hughes is charting a path for the next generation of high achieving women that is characterized by an uncompromising devotion to family, we will all have been enriched –because, over the long haul, such commitments benefit business as much as families. If, however, her departure leaves behind a cadre of “ideal workers” [men and women who sacrifice everything for personal advancement and ego gratification] with no countervailing pressures, we will have a net loss.

Perhaps we will have only made real progress when we recognize that making our spouses and children our top priority is a truly courageous decision. Indeed, a manly decision.


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