Why The "Bad Mom" Myth Hurts Everyone

Just after my son’s first birthday, I was on the phone with my mom, grappling over a gut-wrenching decision. I was scheduled to go on a business trip but instinctively felt that my son would start walking any day. I wanted to be there for his first steps. If I went on the trip, I knew I would miss it.

“Do you remember who was there when you took your first steps?” my mother asked. She had been a stay-at-home mom early in my childhood, and I vividly recalled her loving presence in my life. “I’m sure it was you, Mom,” I responded. “But do you remember?” she asked again. I had to admit I couldn’t recall. “No one can, hon,” she retorted. Then she gave me the best advice a mother could give her stressed-out, working-mom daughter: “If you’re going to create the change in the world I think you have the potential to, you’re going to have to get clear about which decisions you’re making to benefit you and which decisions you’re making to benefit your child. If you want to be there when Kofi takes his first steps to fulfill your need, that’s beautiful. But don’t pretend you’re sacrificing for Kofi. Because trust me, he won’t remember.”

I paused. It was the first time I'd thought that way about my role of balancing motherhood with everything else in my life. Although I knew it was impossible to be all things to all people, deep inside, I felt that if I wasn’t physically present when my son started walking, I was a bad mom.

Unfortunately, too many of us feel this way. Many women feel enormous pressure to live up to a traditional standard of womanhood. It's no wonder, as we're constantly being inundated with the message that "having it all" is essential. Even Hillary Clinton, poised to be the most powerful woman on the planet, had to be introduced at the Democratic National Convention as a perfect mother. “Every single memory that I have of my mom is that, regardless of what was happening in her life, she was always, always there for me,” proclaimed her daughter Chelsea.

As Chelsea said this, I didn't feel in awe of Clinton or guilty about my own missed talent shows and Girl Scout meetings. I felt pissed.

Clinton's soccer game attendance is beside the point. The point is that mothers are held to an impossible standard. And that myth needs to end.

A few months ago, I was coaching Sarah, a new mom who had recently returned to work after maternity leave. It was 9 a.m. and she was on her third cup of coffee. I asked Sarah to engage in a time-prioritization exercise in which we reviewed a list of everything she wanted to accomplish in an “ideal” day. By the time we added up all the tasks and the amount of time they would take, Sarah’s core dilemma was clear: She’d need to either clone herself or miraculously add eight more hours to her day in order to meet her own expectations.

My heart sunk as I heard Sarah parrot the same list I had when I was a new mother. Sarah was a superstar in her career. She was strategic but knew when she needed to improvise. She knew her strengths and was a powerful change agent at our office. But in her role as a mother, she'd fallen into the myth society perpetuates: that the only way to be a good mom is to do everything and be there all the time.

But that's not true. As for me, I ended up going on that business trip, and my mother and I were both right: My son took his first steps while I was away. But you know what? It didn’t matter. When he got older and watched the video, he didn’t ask who was behind the camera. I felt like a "bad mom" as that airplane took off, but now I know my decision to go made me a real mom. Except in rare, extreme instances, the "bad mom" doesn’t really exist. She’s just a scary figment of a good mother’s imagination.

A widely sought-after speaker, Tiffany Dufu is chief leadership officer at Levo. She was a Lean In launch team member and served as president of The White House Project. Tiffany’s forthcoming book, DROP THE BALL: Achieving More by Doing Less, a memoir and manifesto that shows women how to let go in order to thrive, will be released by Flatiron/MacMillan in February 2017. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at the Drop The Ball website.

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