There's nothing mystical about being a career mother, says Marilyn Leverson, director of occupational therapy at a Chicago hospital. She should know. Over the past 11 years, Leverson and her husband, Ralph, have juggled two careers, three children and their sanity. "This takes a lot of time, energy and coordination, but it brings me a lot of pleasure," says 40-year-old Leverson, who rises at 3:45 each morning to meet the enormous challenge of rearing children, ages 5, 9 and 11, and overseeing a professional staff of 30.
Sharon Johnson of Alexandria, Va., initially thought combining motherhood with her career as a cartographer for the Defense Mapping Agency would be easy. As a child, she watched her mother work and divvy up enough personal time for her six children. So, naturally, Johnson thought that she, too, could easily attain both. But soon after the arrival of her daughters, Havyn, now 3, and Nia, now 1, she began to change her tune.
"I really didn't see a problem with having both," says the 28-year-old who splits housework and child-rearing duties with her husband, Matthew, an auditor. "But as a career mother, you sometimes feel overwhelmed, like you can't do it all."
Leverson and Johnson represent a growing number of working women who are choosing careers and family life, and, despite the odds, are succeeding at both. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 40 million women work full time, and 37 percent of them are mothers. The secret to their success, experts agree, rests in resolving the built-in conflicts associated with juggling dual roles.
"We have to work at what kind of environment we want for our children," says Dr. Grace Carroll Massey, who teaches a course, "Black Families in Contemporary America," and serves as director of African-American Student Development at the University of California at Berkeley. "Then we have to make some conscious decisions about our work life that are compatible with this vision."
Will I forego this promotion right now in order to spend more time with Jimmy? Or will Jimmy have to spend an extra hour at the latchkey center so I can finish this major assignment? Leverson remembers being confronted with such a dilemma. "You're sometimes faced with situations when you really want to do something with your family, but you have a report that has to get out," she says. "I feel a lot of guilt regarding the educational aspect of my children. I have them in tutorial programs, and a lot of it is because I can't necessarily spend the time to help them with homework."
Sharon Johnson of Virginia also feels the pressure. "It's very hard to go to work and not have guilty feelings. That's been the hardest thing for me," says Johnson, mother of two preschool-age daughters. "As a mother, you want to be there to see their first steps, hear their first words."
Although it's natural for women who work outside of the home to feel a sense of loss when they're away from their children, gender-based expectations tend to compound and complicate the experience. "There's a lower expectation of working dads," Dr. Massey points out. "There are men who go to work and don't come home until 9 p.m. As a career mother, if you make a decision to do that, you have to have child care in place, support in place," she says. In addition, Dr. Massey says career mothers are expected to perform other hearth-warming functions like baking cookies and carpooling, even after wrapping up 10- and 14-hour days.
Dr. Massey and others say career mothers need strong support systems to succeed. "You can have the best of both worlds, …