Fifteen years ago, Jamie Ladge was raising her 12-week-old son while pursuing a doctorate in organization studies.
“I got the reputation of being known as the one that has the baby,” Ladge says. “I used to get phone calls all the time, ‘I’m thinking about doing a PhD program, someone gave me your name, would you talk to me?’ And so I started talking to all these people about whether or not it was possible.”
Each wanted to know whether she could succeed as a working mother.
“And then someone actually said to me, ‘Hey—you should study this,” says Ladge, who is now a professor of management and organizational development in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern.
Fifteen years later, as a mother to three teenage boys, she has fully realized the importance of a positive outlook. Ladge, a qualitative researcher who has listened to the stories of hundreds of working mothers over the years, has teamed with Danna Greenberg, a professor of organizational behavior at Babson College, to write a new book, Maternal Optimism: Forging a Positive Path through Work and Motherhood.
“We didn’t want to talk about just the negative stuff that women experience as working mothers,” Ladge says. “We know that most of the research out there points to a lot of the stigmas that are faced by working mothers, and people who are experiencing pregnancy and the early years of mixing parenting with work. There were a lot of positive stories, and so we really wanted to have a more positive spin.”
Ladge encourages women to forego preconceived notions. There can be no perfect model for working motherhood, Ladge points out, because each case is unique to the circumstances of the parents and their children.
“You can chart your own path,” Ladge says. “Maybe it helps to read about someone else’s path, so that there’s one piece of it that might be useful, and another piece of another path that’s useful—then you can kind of piece it together yourself. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, because we all have our own experiences and stories to tell. It is really an individual thing.”
Conversations between spouses, she says, can contribute to the necessary expectations and teamwork before the child is born, with the understanding that parents must be flexible as children develop personalities all their own. All kinds of inventive methods can help working mothers cope, including the idea of inviting friends over for “crappy dinners” without cleaning the house or shopping for food.
“That means basically you just throw together whatever is on your shelf,” Ladge says. “You make whatever is there, and you spend dinner together that way.”
As important as it is for working mothers to set out with a positive outlook, Maternal Optimism does not ignore the hard realities. The average family will spend almost a quarter of a million dollars on a child from birth to age 17 (not including the costs of college), according to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that underline the pressures faced by working mothers. For those women who hope to develop careers by postponing pregnancy, Ladge notes that 10 percent of women in the United States aged 15 to 44 will deal with infertility issues, and that rate rises to almost one-third for women older than 35 who are trying to conceive for the first time.
The support systems for mothers that exist in other countries and cultures are not so readily available in the United States, Ladge says.
Built into the American culture is a stigma that can discourage mothers from enjoying their working lives. Ladge cites a report that showed 51 percent of working mothers expressing guilt about not spending enough time with their children (and 55 percent of stay-at-home mothers feeling guilty for not contributing money to the family).
“There was one woman I spoke to many years ago: She was a first-time mom, she had gone back to work, and she was pretty successful in her company,” Ladge says. “She was so afraid to talk out loud about being happy to be at work. And she said to me something along the lines of, ‘I hope there are other women like me out there, and I’m not the only one.’”