On Monday, MBG published an article written by Michelle Kennedy titled I’m A Mom Who Started Her Own Company. Here’s Why I Want People To Stop Calling Me A ‘Mompreneur’.
I love MBG and they almost always get it right, but this time they didn’t.
Terms like “boss babe”, “girl boss, and “mompreneur” are a bit silly, but as long as they aren’t used in a minimizing or demeaning way, they aren’t a big deal. It makes no difference if people call me a mompreneur because I’m comfortable in both roles. In fact, I relish both roles and would argue that they are deeply interconnected.
Kennedy’s first objection is that “all anyone wants to hear about is my experience as a mother”. That’s because for many women, being a mother is all-encompassing. For many women, being a mother is more than a role, it’s the apotheosis of identity, it’s not a coat to shrug off when we walk into the office. She asks if “raising finance as a startup founder has bearing on being a mother”? It does. Our careers inform our parenting too.
It’s beneficial for all to remember that motherhood is essential to life. It’s time we treated it as the big deal it is, not only for mothers, but for society, for the future, for humankind. A mother’s power resides in her ability to be pregnant, to give birth, to raise children, to sustain life. It may be irrelevant to the job description, and it may not be all that she is, but it’s monumental. And not everyone will appreciate it, understand it, celebrate it, or even tolerate it, but that doesn’t make it less remarkable.
Motherhood shapes women’s perspectives in a way few other things can. For many, motherhood sharpens senses, fuels decisiveness, provides clarity and awakens instincts. It allows us to see connections we couldn’t see before, to be efficient in ways we never imagined, to trust our bodies to power through unimaginable conditions. It can teach life skills that translate into becoming better leaders and yes, it’s not easy to explain or universally true, it can make you better at your job. It’s leverage.
Kennedy finds it frustrating that motherhood is always a part of the business conversation and I get it. Despite the remarkability, I get that sometimes women want to showcase their business savvy and leadership skills and be the badass executives they are. And sometimes women want to be admired for their household management skills and child-rearing capabilities and be seen as the badass moms they are. And although some women want both at the same time, or both at different times, or one for a while and then the other, some women want neither or just one.
By downplaying our complexity or compartmentalizing our lives, we are missing an opportunity to show up whole and showcase our inherent strengths. We are caving to a patriarchal system. By diminishing the profundity of motherhood at the office, we are giving away our power.
What would happen if we used the lessons and gifts of motherhood to accentuate our inherently different approach to business, to embrace both masculine and feminine strategies? After all, isn’t diversity a good thing? Hasn’t there been study after study after study that shows women have skills that uniquely qualify them to be successful in business, that there are many advantages to companies and economies when women influence business (and political) environments?
It’s inconsequential if Kennedy or others feel that discussions of motherhood and business are uncomfortable and “not fair”. She continues “being a parent is important and I love to talk about it in the right context, men simply aren’t asked these types of questions.” There isn’t a “right context”. Every discussion is an opportunity to influence perception, and while it’s true that men aren’t asked the same questions, that’s because men usually control the conversation.
Over time, men have convinced everyone that being a dad has no bearing on their business. They don’t entertain the idea that it diminishes their career. In fact, they have turned it into an asset. While women, in their efforts to downplay or disassociate from their roles as mothers, have prolonged the perception that motherhood is problematic for business.
Can you imagine if men could have babies? How often would we hear about it? Their credit, their accomplishments, their sacrifices, their miraculousness? Their ability to be both an executive or entrepreneur and a father? How would businesses and social systems evolve to support them? How would legislation change?
Kennedy describes an Innovation in Tech conference in which Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, can’t escape discussions about motherhood despite the conference theme.
What would happen if Wojcicki, and other female executives, used their unique perspectives and platforms to embrace the complexity of womanhood, to change the perception about how we lead and how we mother? (Wojcicki does embrace it btw and you can watch here.)
Being a female business leader means consistently evaluating the trade-offs of motherhood. Even though it’s one of the biggest decisions of a woman’s life, there’s woefully little information out there. Fortune 500 female CEOs are exceedingly rare. That means not only do we have too few role models, but many we do have are hesitant to draw attention to motherhood in any way that might diminish their career.
It’s a legitimate fear and still until we have enough mothers in the C-Suite to demonstrate that motherhood and business can successfully co-exist, Wojcicki and others will need to continue to field questions about motherhood and business and be thoughtful about how they answer.
Wojcicki and others are pioneers. The way they answer those questions isn’t about defending their choices, it’s about reinforcing the possibilities and paths for women. They can make the case for it, that women can earn a spot at the table and nurture children. They can tell their stories, filled with real challenges and recommendations about what helped along the way.
For many admiring and aspiring women, the questions about motherhood and business are defining. They want to know how Wojcicki or (insert any female executive here) does it because they know they will not only have to answer the question today as they contemplate their futures, but as they climb, as their family evolves, as their ambitions grow, and manage it over their entire careers: Can I do it? Can I build a business, run a company, be a good manager, show up to work every day and still raise great kids, hold it down at home, and have my own life too?
They are not just wondering if they can achieve CEO status, but if the sacrifices are worth it at any level, if it’s possible to balance motherhood and ambition in a real way that works for their own careers. Women want to know and if we don’t ask Wojcicki, who will we ask?
Kennedy calls the discussion of motherhood and work-life balance a trap. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to embrace the complexity and authenticity of being an executive and a mother, vital roles that can benefit each other. It’s an opportunity to shift the conversation from away from debates about if you can “have it all” to methods and systems for making it work. All women/mothers/titles/companies/organizations/industries need examples of motherhood and business thriving together, benefiting each other.
It’s also important to shift the discussion from motherhood vs. career because the reality is it’s rarely a choice anymore. Working while raising children is inevitable for many women whether they’d choose it or not. It’s circumstantial. For most families, a mom’s decision to work or not is making the best of any given situation, a mixture of financial pressures, childcare costs, her earning potential, her partner’s earning potential, flexibility needed, insurance needed, and so much more. It’s almost always what’s best for the family and sometimes that aligns with what’s also best for mom, sometimes not.
Why can’t it be easier for women? For mothers? For families? There are a million reasons, none of them good, but it is changing. It’s going to get better. For everyone. One way it gets better is when high-profile women model something different.
In October 2016, Rashida Jones wrote a tribute to Michelle Obama in the NY Times. It was part of a compelling series, a thank you note about her time as First Lady. It captured how powerful it can be when women use their platforms to provide a more complex, more nuanced, more authentic, more tangible version of what it is to be a woman.
Of the “many identities” of women, Jones wrote: “My female friends and I often talk about feeling like we’re “too much”. We’re complicated; we want to be so many things. I want to be a boss and also be vulnerable. I want to be outspoken and respected, but also sexy and beautiful. All women struggle to reconcile the different people that we are at all times, to merge our conflicting desires, to represent ourselves honestly and feel good about the inherent contradictions.”
She held Michelle Obama up as an example of doing it right (while under scrutiny), forcing us “to accept that being a woman isn’t just one thing. Or two things. Or three things.” It’s everything: “equal opportunity” and “every choice”.
By owning everything, all of our power, conflicting desires, inherent contradictions, complexities, capabilities, choices, our careers and our motherhood, at home, in business, in every setting, at every opportunity, we defy the idea that we must choose.
That’s why the term Mompreneur isn’t a big deal for me. It’s a victory of sorts. It means that there are enough women choosing entrepreneurship and motherhood that there’s a term to describe us. That’s a win! There are enough women choosing both and so much more.