Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

The Myth of the Working Mom

Essay published on AIGA Voice, September 12, 2006.

“How do you do it all?” I often get this question, and my answer is this: no one does it all. Doing it all means, of course, having a career and having kids, and it’s one of the great myths of our era. The myth is that you can pursue these two essentially incompatible activities without screwing up either one. The myth is that having children will infuse your professional work with a wondrous energy (akin to the fabled second-trimester glow), and that having a job will make you a more interesting and fulfilled person, and thus a better parent.

One year ago, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel called “Women Rock!” at the national AIGA Design Conference in Boston. Devoted to the life-issues faced by female designers, the panel sought to “offer unique insights on juggling career and family, dealing with stress, and how all the chaos offers training and inspiration for becoming a better designer, a better businessperson, and a better mother.” That program blurb neatly sums up the myth, suggesting that the chaotic life of the working mom provides the ultimate training ground for getting better at everything.

So there we were on the stage, a group of middle-aged female designers: Jessica Helfand, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt, Bonnie Siegler, Emily Potts (who graciously organized the panel), and myself. We all had kids, and we all had jobs. Bonnie, in her early forties, had just had her second baby, who was being patiently handled by her husband sitting in the front row. We were all relatively successful, some more prominent than others, but let’s say none of us was exactly Stefan Sagmeister, about to start carving letters in our chests with an Xacto knife. (If any of us would, I guess it would be Bonnie.)

The audience was eager to find out how to do it all, but one of the best questions came from Boston-based designer Fritz Klaetke, who asked why there weren’t any men on the panel. After all, one of the ways women manage in today’s world is having supportive partners like Fritz, who exemplifies the new model of hyper-involved, ultra-engaged fatherhood. Fritz is an excellent designer, a leader in the Boston design community, and a deeply committed dad. My own husband, Abbott Miller (who is a much better mom than I am), wants to publish a magazine called Working Father—an absurd idea pointing to our societal assumption that dads have to work anyway.

The event in Boston last year got me thinking about work and parenting and all the fudging and corner-cutting we do in order to pursue them both. Younger mothers, I’ve learned, are more likely to stay at home with their small children than women my age. I was born in 1963, at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and I grew up in a household with two working parents, always believing that work would define my life. Generation X is the swath of people born between 1965 and 1979. A common experience for this group is the “absent father,” or being a child of divorce. Perhaps because of that experience as well as the general trend towards downward mobility, Generation X moms and dads both put more value on spending time at home with their kids, and less value on professional success.

A strange conversational dance occurs when two women meet and begin finding out who works and who stays at home. It’s awkward to ask directly, so you look for cues. (A mom who wears tennis whites when she drops off the kids at school might not have a job, but you never know; she could be a lawyer with a home office or a brain surgeon who works the night shift.) The infamous New York City message board UrbanBaby assigns codes for one’s employment status: SAHM for moms who stay-at-home; WOHM for those who work-outside-the-home.

Why does it matter? There’s a “mommy war” going on, and members of each side often feel more comfortable with other women who have made choices like theirs. Furthermore, we are often eager to validate our own decisions as the best ones for our children. The SAHMs occupy the moral high ground in this matter—they’re the ones who have made the big sacrifice, spending crucial years of their lives almost exclusively with their kids, refusing to hand over their babies and toddlers to nannies, au pairs, and day care facilities for eight or ten hours a day.

It seems obvious to me that mothers and fathers are the best “care givers” for small children, and research more or less bears this out. Working moms try to argue that their own kids are getting the better deal: earlier socialization, more independence, an immune system toughened by exposure to pathogens, and, above all, the opportunity to draw inspiration from a busy mother whose mental life and personal identity derives not just from her children, but also from a career. But young children, as I’ve observed them, are deeply self-involved. Until my kids reached elementary school age, they rarely took interest in either parent, beyond our readiness to entertain, protect, sooth, feed, transport, and so on. Little kids want to be with their parents because we make them feel safe, whole, and happy, not because they admire our professional achievements.

Knowing this in my heart, I nonetheless made my own decision to continue working while my children were small. I look at my kids now, ages eight and twelve, and wonder what choices they will make. Will they have kids? Will they have jobs? (Will jobs still exist when they grow up?) Would they have become happier and more fulfilled adults if I had quit working for eight or nine years? I’ll never know the answer, any more than I will know what kind of professional success I would have achieved if I hadn’t slowed down to have children.

I vividly recall a bath-time conversation when my son Jay was in second grade. With his head covered in a foamy helmet of shampoo, he announced, “Most of my friends’ moms don’t work.” Dismay lurched deep in my gut. “What do you think about that?” I asked. “I dunno, “ he said.

When I ask him the same question now, he says he likes my job because I teach him “cool design stuff,” like how to use Flash and how to publish his designs and animations on the Web. My younger daughter, Ruby, feels similarly. Getting dressed for camp recently, she announced, “Mommy, you’re cool.” “Wow,” I said. “Why do you think I’m cool?” (Surely it wasn’t because of my Lands End circle skirt.) “Because you’re a designer, and we get to design things together.” My tween-age children are now finding value in my professional skills. My work has become an opportunity for creative companionship with my kids. Indeed, design is becoming part of their own identities, for now, as they each stake out a place in the world of digital media and visual art, areas full of intrigue and possibility.

At that same conference in Boston last year, Alex Isley organized a breakout session about teaching kids to be designers. He argued for the social importance of teaching your own kids—and all the others kids around you—to be designers in their daily lives. David Peters, another “working father” attending the conference, talked to me and some other parents about organizing events for kids at AIGA’s next national conference, so we can bring our children along and have hands-on activities for them to do all weekend. My kids and I would like to be the first volunteers to staff the booth. We’ll do the best we can, and we’ll be working.