Maintenance is time-consuming. As a working mother, I gave up on regular manicures. It was enough to keep my hair looking professional (and, later, not gray). As soon as I could, I abandoned skirts for the same reason (keeping a supply of un-snagged pantyhose is beyond me).
While I could cheerily make trade-offs for myself, at first I had deep pangs when I would see other children beautifully dressed, with the boys’ hair trimmed neatly and the girls’ tresses arrayed with barrettes, braids, etc. I had given up on the idea that my kids’ grooming reflected on me. I rationalized by saying that if they didn’t brush their teeth twice a day, they would have to suffer the consequences. The theory was that not nagging my kids would help them develop self-discipline. But the real reason was I couldn’t do everything. (And I’m terrible with a blow-dryer; my own style is wash-and-wear by necessity.)
In all seriousness, as the founder of Parenting Magazine, I do feel a bit responsible for the generation of “helicopter parents” who hover over their kids, feeling their successes as our own. If my (not-fully-employed) friend’s daughter doesn’t get into Harvard, my friend will be more devastated than her daughter. And this begins early. Non-working mothers spend time competing with other mothers for the best-dressed kid, the best lunch packed for school, the fullest roster of lessons to which they drive their children. Working mothers are already competing in the office and don’t have the time to compete in the lunchbox.
I think we working mothers are better off for this. While I am as competitive as the next person, I think it’s fortunate that our lack of time saves us from the ugliness of getting our “wins” through our children’s appearance and performance. We may pay a price in guilt, at the visible shame that our daughters don’t have perfect hair or our sons wear wrinkled clothes, but those kids are taught a good lesson about taking care of themselves.
Yet it’s still hard to let go of the visible signs of a pampered child. The sooner a working mother can stop feeling responsible for every aspect of her child’s life, the sooner that child can develop the resilience and self-sufficiency that will empower him in later life.
“When they get old enough to care what their hair looks like, they will brush it.” This was a favorite saying of Leslie Jacobs, the founder of a large insurance agency whom I interviewed for my book, Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
I don’t want to gender-stereotype as I’m sure there is an act of personal grooming equivalent to hair-brushing that we mothers do for our sons; in my case, being Jewish, circumcision was almost a foregone (no pun intended) conclusion. But the thought did occur to me that future nagging of my then-infant to keep clean would be one less thing on my list.
By Robin Wolaner founded Parenting magazine in 1987 and sold the property to Time Inc. where she served as CEO of Sunset Publishing. She is the author of Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career and recently founded TeeBeeDee.com, a networking site for people over forty.