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Book review: 'Seven Myths of Working Mothers' by Suzanne Venker

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Monday, 16 May 2005

The thesis of this book is simple: women can have it all, but not necessarily at the same time. That is, a woman can choose to excel at motherhood, or she can choose to excel at a career, but she cannot do both simultaneously.

As such, this book attempts to burst the bubble of the super-mom myth, the idea that one can juggle both tasks, and succeed at both. Indeed, according to Venker, a working mother comes close to being a contradiction in terms.

Of course a mum can work part time, and some mums, especially single mums, may have no choice about full-time employment, but for the average woman, to think that one can excel in a fantastic career path, and produce great, well-developed kids at the same time is simply wishful thinking.


Says Venker, “The reason the work and family balance continues to be elusive is not the insensitivity of men and employers, but that raising children has always been, and will continue to be, a full-time job. And no one, male or female, can successfully perform two full-time jobs at the same time. Period.”

Before critics go ballistic at this point, it is worth examining some of the justifications the author provides for her argument. She does this, as the title implies, by closely examining seven myths about working mothers.

The first myth, “Men can have it all, so why can’t we” is just that: a myth. Most men who work full time do not spend an equal amount of time with their children. In any set of relationships there are always trade-offs. Men in full time jobs trade off the privilege of having the lengthy, intimate moments with their children that a stay-at-home mother has. And it is the same if it is the mother who is working full time.

Indeed, the term “working mother” in this regard is misleading. If a mother chooses a full-time paid career, she is basically leaving the job of mothering to someone else. She is paying someone else to mother her children.

And it is a myth to think that most mothers are working, or want to work, full time. In the US over 60 per cent of mothers with children under age eighteen do not work at all or work part time. And when the children are under age 6, the figure rises to 64 per cent. “Working mothers” then are a clear minority.

Another myth is that the roles of dads and mums are fully interchangeable. They are not, because men and women are not the same. There are inherent, biological differences. As Venker demonstrates, “fathers will never be parents in the same way mothers are”. Thus the androgyny ideal is a furphy.


To speak about completely equal roles in marriage therefore is nonsense. There is never complete equality in marriage. Instead there is give and take. There are concessions and there is bargaining. Any good partnership requires a division of labour, and women seem hard-wired by nature to have more of a nurturing, caring and, well, maternal, disposition. It is not just breast-feeding that is the mother’s distinctive.

Another myth is that day care is good for children. Quite the opposite is the case. The longer a child is in day care, and from an earlier age, the worse it is for the child. As one child expert has put it, “A home must be very bad before it can be bettered by a good institution”. Yet we have abandoned our children in droves to strangers. Feminists have convinced many women that they can only be fulfilled and liberated if in the paid workplace. Totally absent from the debate is the needs of the child. Says Venker, “the time to decide whether motherhood is right for us is before we get pregnant, not after”.

And then there is the myth that it is the workplace that gives us a sense of identity and importance. This is a quite modern notion actually,. Throughout most of human history what made us truly secure and satisfied was our family. Home and relationships have always been where true meaning and purpose have been found. It is only because families have started to become unravelled lately that we seek meaning and belonging in the company of strangers.

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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