Left Neglected, Working Moms, and Harry Chapin

I’m a psychologist and I love the brain-mind connection, which is why I loved both of Lisa Genova’s books. The first, Still Alice, was about a middle aged, mid-career professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s. It was funny and sad and touching, and really quite depressing. So when I saw that her recent book, Left Neglected, is about a working mom, I of course picked it up.

Left Neglected is about Sarah, a VP at a consulting company and mother of three who has a car accident that leaves her with a condition called left neglect: her brain doesn’t know that the left side exists. But really, the book is about a career woman who finds that her family matters to her more than her career (cue audience “awww” sound).

Lisa Genova has a pretty clear agenda on both her books. She is trying to remind us that family and loved ones are more important than jobs or careers. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t disagree. I think loved ones ARE more important than job and careers. I think it’s disturbing that those women had to go through traumatic brain damage to get to that revelation, but that’s another point.

The thing I disagree with Ms. Genova about is this assumption that if family is more important than a career then you ought to be a stay-at-home mom or at least work part time. What I find annoying is the implicit criticism that working moms put their careers before their families. This, by the way, is not necessarily directed at women. Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle (made famous for my generation by Ugly Kid Joe) is one example of the pressure directed at dads to spend more time with their kids. I think it is unfair, especially in the modern world, to hold a career against you even if you are a mom.

Now at this point, people will say, well, some moms have to go to work, and then it’s not their fault. And I would ask, well, what about the moms who don’t have to go to work? What about the moms for whom, from a financial point of view, there is no necessity in a second income? In my case, my income is inconsequential as compared with my husband (it doesn’t reflect a gender issue: he’s in high-tech and I’m a graduate student). Specifically, in my case, my income barely covers daycare for the two kids – and that’s just because it got governmental funding. So, am I not allowed to go back because we don’t have the financial need for it?

My husband and I talked about it when our first was about six months old, and we have decided that I would go back to work because otherwise I would go insane and throw the baby out the window. I admire stay-at-home moms, I have no idea how they do it. In this decision, two factors played a significant role. The first was that I wanted the career opportunity. I can’t be satisfied with just being a mom; I need to be a professional as well. Please do not interpret “just” as meaning “merely”, I’m not trying to start another mommy war. I wouldn’t have been happy had I stayed at home to care for my kids, despite my love for them. The second factor was the example I wanted to set for my kids. I want my son to think of women as independent and capable. I want my daughter to think of herself as a whole person, not a one-dimensional character as the media sometimes portrays us. In order for them to do that, they need to see their female role model as such. And, unfortunately for them, I’m that female role model. So here we are.

What do you think? Am I neglecting my children by going back to work? Or do you agree with me that sometimes we need more than our kids? Please share your story and the factors that you took into consideration when you decided to go back to work or stay at home. 

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