why ambition + motherhood go hand-in-hand



Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. — Eleanor Roosevelt

Once, some years ago, I was driving home with my then-mother-in-law when I opened up to her about my dreams as a writer, the books I felt I had in me.

Later, it filtered back to me that she had gone to my then-husband and expressed concern about my ability to be a mother.

“Justine is too ambitious,” she said.

What I find interesting – looking back on this now – is that, in fact, I was not at my best: I was a bit lost, a bit broken, and in need of some help (which I got). But when it came to my ability to be fully present for my five kids (twins and triplets), my mother-in-law didn’t think in terms of postpartum depression, or the wear and tear on a body that had been through a series of IVF treatments, three C-sections, and abdominal surgery to repair a massive hernia.

She didn’t question the nonstop whirlwind lifestyle, or the kind of stress my then-husband might be bringing home from his dayjob of running two companies and the impact this might have on the marriage, or the impact that a deteriorating marriage might have on me.

She didn’t wonder about the psychological overwhelm of finding yourself the mother of five children in less than five years.

Nor did she seem to think about the death of my first child – at ten weeks from SIDS when I was 29 – and how the trauma of that experience, as well as the grievous struggle to make some sense of it, might impact my relationships with the children I have now.

The problem, as she saw it, was my ambition.

I don’t write this to take aim at the woman. She was only reflecting a belief in the culture-at-large: that you can nurture your ambition, or your children, but not both.

As this blogger puts it, struggling to reconcile the side of her that loves to mother with the side of her that yearns for achievement:

“It’s not about trying to ‘have it all’. As a grown-up, I am aware that I cannot be a writer, teacher, Solid Gold dancer, actress, shop owner and the kind of mother I want to be, all at the same time.

“But I can acknowledge the two different sides of me in whatever way feels right, right now…

“I don’t have to apologize for being equally drawn to baking cookies and building my blog. I don’t have to pretend that I work to escape diaper changes and dishes, or only because ‘I have to.’ It’s perfectly OK to be fulfilled both by motherhood and by outside work.

Notice that this blogger isn’t talking about the practical, everyday struggle of combining work and parenting. She’s talking about the struggle to combine motherhood with the fact that she wants to work….without feeling the need to apologize for it, as if she’s somehow defective as a woman.

I was reading PERFECT MADNESS: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety when the author, Judith Warner, referenced another woman, an anthropologist named Sarah Hrdy who wrote a book called MOTHER NATURE.

Hrdy wanted to know if maternity and ambition were naturally intended to be so….separate.

Hrdy noticed that our female primate relatives manage to provide for their offspring and nurture them with hands-on care.

Our female ancestors in the Pleistocene era carried their babies as they foraged or gathered firewood.

For both groups, work and mothering seemed to come together naturally.

And what Hardy realized was this:

“High-status female primates ate. Low-status female primates were eaten. Or were chased away from food. Or saw their babies eaten by other females. And so primate mothers, in order to keep their children alive, had to be ambitious. They had to secure ‘status’ for themselves and their offspring so that they’d have access to fought-over resources like food and shelter.”

A female’s ambitious nature, Hrdy saw, helped her children survive and as a result

“was the ultimate form of mother care.”

Today, we’re still struggling for limited resources, whether it’s money or daycare or the right organic foods or the right preschools. We’re still hardwired to provide for our kids – acquiring the status and resources that will enable them to survive and thrive. Warner writes:

“Which means that ‘natural’ motherhood today should know no conflict between providing for our children (i.e. ‘working’) and nurturing them (i.e. ‘being a mom’). Both are part of our evolutionary heritage; both are equally ‘child-centered’ imperatives….

“By putting the two in conflict – by insisting on the incompatibility of work and motherhood – our culture does violence to mothers, splitting them, unnaturally, within themselves….

“’The conflict…is not between maternity and ambition,’” Hrdy writes, “’but between the needs of infants and the way a woman’s ambition plays out in modern workplaces.’”

In other words, the culture doesn’t insist on a separation of maternity and ambition because that is the natural order of things. We’re trained to believe — or feel on a visceral level — that maternity and ambition must be separate only because the culture has structured it that way. And this damages us.


Oct 27, 2012

16 comments · Add Yours

Cool. I didn’t know this evolutionary aspect of ambition, but it makes perfect sense to me. I changed countries and cultures so that I could better provide for my little one (she’s almost 4 now), _and_ keep my career going, but iin a healthier way where expenses and time have different value and amounts. I felt I was drowning in the US, barely sleeping and barely enough money –> barely keeping afloat. My daughter and I have the possibility to truly thrive here by just changing the equation.

This post of yours seems different.. I always wondered how the extreme events that your body experienced to produce those 5 little lives must have on the rest of your perspective. You are a mother’s mother, Justine, and you rarely speak about that. And now, I can imagine your life is in a state of turmoil and introspection. Give time time. That’s the best healing that we can give ourselves.


yes, very interesting indeed!


Most of my mom friends stay home with their kids, so I struggle against this sometimes. I am a school counselor and I love going to work because, well my kids are hard and I need a break, but also because it feeds me in a totally different way. It gives me a chance to love on lots of kids, and that makes me so happy. I get lots of meaning from it, and I’d like to think I bring that home to my children. It’s a hard thing.


That’s a lot of kids. And their pretty luck to have such a badass mom.


I knew from some of your other posts that you are a mother, thank you for sharing your story with us. You are a strong woman, which I have to agree, is found to be odd when discussing motherhood. Personally, I have to work, I will be a single mother, and will have to be ambitious in order to make sure I plan time to spend not only with my daughter, educating, introducing her to the world, but also spend time on myself, my inner demons, and not letting them take flight, while working a 40-45 hour work week. Ambition is what got me through finding out I was pregnant and the father not having any interest. Ambition is what got me through telling my family, dealing with judgement, and still getting up every morning. I want my daughter to have the kind of life I did not have – not necessarily monetary, but full of knowledge and culture and excitement. This means I have to look at things differently than most mothers I know, and plan my life differently. I think women forget their ambition when they realize they are pregnant, and then the void in their soul begins. Betty Frieden discussed this in the 60’s, and I think it is still very applicable today.


Excellent. I’m so glad to see you speaking up on this issue. Lack of self-esteem and autonomy are pandemic in youth in our culture, and I believe the causes are not what we’ve had beaten into our heads over the years. We cannot hand our children self-esteem as a gift, but we can nurture them towards their own accumulated self-esteem by helping them find their value. Their value comes from being needed and necessary in the family unit. It is destroyed if they become decorative baubles of our own frustrated ambition. My daughter is a grown woman making terrific strides along her own path, and I’m convinced it’s due, in part, because she was my beautiful, sweet baby who played a huge part in helping me realize my own ambitions. She gathered her self-esteem when she learned there were things she could do and do without by helping those around her, and that included me. She learned she could control herself when Mommy needed quiet time or she had to take over some tasks I couldn’t do because I was busy. She was a part of what I was doing and I always let her know I couldn’t have done what I did without her help. That made her proud of herself and powerful. That value and sense of power followed her into adult life.

We can talk ourselves blue in the face, telling our children about goals and making a contribution, but all that talk means little in comparison with how they will model their behavior, and emotional habits, on our own. If all they see is sacrifice and hurt and separation from self in their parents, they’re going to know something’s not right and tend to shoulder the genesis of the problem. They’re egocentric, it’s part of their developmental cycle and can’t be skipped. They’ll then go on to re-create those situations in their own lives because that’s all they know. Who wants that for their children?

I’d like to see “ambition” abolished from the vocabulary of parents and replaced by value and service. Children are value waiting to be realized. Why do we, as parents, try so hard keeping this message from them?


My mom was and still is a badass. She had to work at something she was very good at but that did not feed her soul in order to provide a living for us. Growing up, knowing how talented she was in other areas that she would’ve enjoyed more, I secretly wished she would pursue those instead. I think that any mother with a soul ambition to do something and the means to do it should definitely follow through. Setting that kind of example for your children is one of the most motherly things you can do. What better gift to give your children than the demonstration that it is acceptable and possible to follow your soul’s urge?


Thank you. Simply, thank you.


When my daughter was 6, she asked me if, when you become a Mommy, if your kids always have to come first. I thought hard before saying, “Well, yes. But for me, putting you first is what I want to do.” I was telling the truth. I have tried always to tell my daughter the truth.

She looked at me and said, “I don’t think I want to have kids then.”

When I asked why, she said, “Because I want my art to come first. I don’t want it to have to be second.”

I thought hard again, then said, “I don’t think it has to be a choice. You can have your art and have kids.”

And then she said the words that stopped me: “You don’t. You don’t write very much because you’re taking care of us or working.”

Or, the words that started me.

When we deny our gifts, our ambitions, we raise daughters who believe they’ll have to deny theirs. It’s not simple; my daughter is also an IVF twin. Being a mother was something I fought fiercely for. It was what I wanted to do. Working is not a choice. Perhaps I was not ambitious enough in other ways. But I realized that day that I needed to honor the part of me that creates with words. For her.


I love these perspectives. Rita: and your story is also interesting to me. My little girl was an IVF baby too, I’m a solo parent from the beginning (donor egg and sperm), so you can say I worked hard for her. In fact it took me 10 years to find the right conditions to start my family, after some heart-breaking failures with partners, so I decided at the end on ‘good enough’ with the solo parent path. I have to say that combining my work (science research), which is absurdly demanding in terms of time, and motherhood as a solo parent, is much harder than I thought. No regrets, but there are days I can’t even find 10 minutes for myself. That’s the part I’m missing. Not the career stuff or the motherhood stuff, but the time-for-me stuff. That last aspect has shifted since I move back to Europe, but I want it to shift more.


I have a hard time getting past how awful your MIL was to say that, instead of reaching out a hand and helping you realize your dream. I don’t just want to realize my own gifts — I want to help my daughter realize hers as well — not just by setting an example, but by helping her create some of that ‘time for me’ Amara references, if necessary, in the future. I’ve seen other mothers and MILS say or do similar things, and I wonder if it is because their own dreams or ambitions were denied. (Conversely, I’ve also seen mothers and MILs make a heroic effort to help provide a little bit of breathing space.)


Interesting “Grace Note” episode, Twilight Zone


Opening Narration:
“Rosemarie, oldest of five children. Always responsible, always dependable. Time and dreams sacrificed to family and duty. Soon to receive a gift of time offered by one who can least afford it. A first fleeting glimpse…into the Twilight Zone.”

Closing Narration:
“To live life fully, one should hear the melody the world makes. Pity those who stumble through their years without ever hearing the song. The greatest gift we can bestow on those we love is to help them hear it. One life ends, another begins. But the song of life fills the universe, even into the last highest darkened balcony row…in the Twilight Zone.”

[ you were the backbone of the family (“Behind every great man there’s a great woman”), allowing the man to “live life full..hear the melody the world makes” (privatization of Space & Electric Cars). You were an active participant/supporter of this man “The greatest gift we can bestow on those we love is to help them hear it”), who is considered a 21st Century industrialist (along w/Steve Jobs), in the tradition of 19th century pioneering industrialists Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, et al. History will show that your contribution has been under-estimated ]

Family vs Career theme. An aspiring opera singer’s (Rose Marie) career is on hold, while she supports her dying sister Mary. Mary realizes her “time is up”, & encourages RM “DO SOMETHING before it’s TOO LATE!” Mary wishes for career success for Rose Marie, & on her deathbed forwards RM to the future where she sees her destiny.

Video here:

“The purpose of Life is to CREATE LIFE”
— Dr David Suzuki, biologist (“Carl Sagan” of Biology)

Women have TWO “creative” (to create) challenges: continuation of the species/lineage (children) & their own creative instincts (“Art”). The latter is not a luxury, but a necessity. As you discovered, there is an Evolutionary basis.


Considering I always figured it was your ex mother in law being ambitious that her children felt sky the limit in their building their lives in very original ways.. It is revealing that she saw you as mirror of herself and was not comfortable with what she saw !

I think now that your ex married a Actress who was not going to give up her career your ex mother in law should accept and realize her son the genius wants woman who are ambitious to keep up with his own zeal for contributing to this world.. Which again I always figured he learned from his very independent very self developed ” Mom” !

You ex divorced the actress tweeting he thought she a excellent woman but he not in love with her ~ Recently he said in interview in business mag he looking for girlfriend who only needed 10 hrs a week from him… So obviously all the stress you have endured in being a ” wife ” ” mother” ( which is truly amazing what your body has been through !!! and emotionally with a instant tribe etc ) did not compute to maybe people who see this all as a ” Role” etc.. ” girlfriend” ” wife” ” mother” etc but you are too deep of a person for being in a ” box” of a ” role” to perform etc..

All apples to oranges.. that it comes down too.. I am huge fan of your ex husband. Met him briefly when he sold pay pal in Palo Alto with my science Nano world. I really liked his energy.. It was so alive and present… What he has done for my world of science is miracle.. The smooth detach from ISS of the Dragon to her landing on Earth not many hours later yesterday is a huge huge grand achievement that is changing the world !!

The trade off for all his inventing moving world forward is he does not have the TIME to give significant others… and with 5 boys.. ( which when I first read he had 5 son’s under 10 yrs I thought Oh Cool.. most likely not the intention but this great mind has been cloned well !! ) this “time” becomes even more juggled as they grow.

I recently came across this book .. Which makes such sense to me in finding our soul mates or the one who is right for us… Knowing our Own Love language and those of the ones we interact with will make life go better for everyone ! Share it with your Ex saying he should read to understand his son’s as individuals and on the journey he will figure out what his own Love language is that has to be met for him to fall in Love.
The 5 Love Languages | The 5 Love Languages®


Like other commentators on this blog.. I did not have choice to be ambitious etc as my son’s father 2 wks before he born disappeared to Switzerland !! Worse then being left at alter.. Slipped on banana peel working to regain balance as I not prepared for the shaft.

I believe it is excellent for children to see their Mom’s have career and life that is her own.
It gives children a much better sense of the world.
I was the same as you.. loved the Mommy role but I also had to do with the ” Daddy” role at same time.. One leg in each set of roles ~ living a constant duality…
I cannot imagine not having this interest that drives me each day that is work etc..
As I THINK . I am not stooge taking up space on planet or robot..
I am a person who has ideas, who thinks, means I alive !! Present etc..

Givepeaceachance Honorself is my FB page which says this woman who seek to be equal with a man lack ambition.. MOMS are the best because we are ambitious !!

Susan Faludi writes much about the subjects you do Justine.. and for sure her books should be required reading as your frustration is dealing with society that is stuck in the past that refuses to evolve… Susan’s books give some insight into why this is.

When Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed The Betrayal of the American Man came out in 1999
I thought for sure…. Evolution would happen for everyone in finding balance acceptance that male females compliment each other and have to be peers in life, work, play etc !! Except Pres Bush forced everyone
back to the 1940’s mindset by attacking Iraq with such a convoluted set of reasoning !!

This has the country and world so confused… Susan Faludi tried to explain this all in her book ” Terror Dream”
what happen to us as society, people via 9/11/01 taking us back to dark ages etc..
Interesting that this book she did in 2007 got bad reviews as people could not cope with the TRUTH she presenting.

Official website for Susan Faludi, journalist and author of Backlash, Stiffed, and The Terror Dream
Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women argued that the 1980s saw a backlash against feminism, especially due to the spread of negative stereotypes againstcareer-minded women. Faludi asserted that many who argue “a woman’s place is in the home, looking after the kids” are hypocrites, since they have wives who are working mothers or, as women, they are themselves working mothers. This work won her the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 1991.[2]
In her 1999 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man Faludi analyzes the state of the American man. Faludi argues that while many of those in power are men, most individual men have little power. American men have been brought up to be strong, support their families and work hard. But many men who followed this now find themselves underpaid or unemployed, disillusioned and abandoned by their wives. Changes in American society have affected both men and women, Faludi concludes, and it is wrong to blame individual men for class differences, or for plain differences in individual luck and ability, that they did not cause and from which men and women suffer alike.[3]
In The Terror Dream Faludi analyzes the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in light of prior American experience going back to insecurity on the historical American frontier such as in Metacom’s Rebellion. Faludi argues that 9/11 reinvigorated in America a climate that is hostile to women. Women are viewed as weak and best suited to playing support roles for the men who protect them from attack.


I came upon this post via “Roots of She”, I was intrigued by the idea of ambition and motherhood, and I am so *happy* to read this because I agree with this idea, that motherhood and ambition go together.

Being a mother of a toddler, I am constantly grappling with all the responsibilities and also all the pulls to work more, because I want to work. I love my work and get depressed when I can’t do enough of it is a week.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to reading more of your work.



Your writing is so dam courageous. It inspires me to be more honest in my writing. I don’t have kids yet as I’m confronted by exactly what you write about. I realize that thinking more isn’t going to resolve the dilemma but at the moment im deeply contemplating why people have children, what truly drives them, how many parents perhaps regret having kids but can’t speak that taboo?

I’m also interested in the challenges of relationship, so often it seems that those exact people who are interesting, driven, intelligent, dedicated to a larger cause ironically can’t really dedicate the time to their families.


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