In February, Rihanna gave a groundbreaking performance at the Super Bowl – not only because it showcased her extraordinary musical career, but also because she was the first person to take this coveted stage while visibly pregnant. The 35-year-old billionaire businesswoman is emblematic of a new generation of mothers refusing to choose between what some call #babiesanddreams.
The Start of the #BabiesandDreams Movement
In her 2020 Golden Globes acceptance speech, a pregnant Michelle Williams said that she wouldn’t have been able to “live a life of [her] own making, and not just a series of events that happened to [her],” without abortion.
In response to this speech, Catholic mother, speaker, and coach Leah Darrow posted a video on her Instagram account (from the bed where she was in labor with her fifth baby), sharing her belief that babies are not an obstacle to a woman’s dreams. A few days later, after she gave birth to her son, she followed up with a post sharing her “#BabiesAndDreams story” and inviting others to do the same.
The worldview represented by Williams’ speech, Darrow told me in an email, “reflects the misplaced emphasis on one’s work at the expense of the sanctity of human life. As I was going through labor, preparing to welcome my fifth child, I felt an overwhelming need to convey the message that babies and dreams are not mutually exclusive.”
Darrow says that the reaction to her post “was diverse. While the majority of women strongly supported the message and felt encouraged, there were some who focused on how babies, in their view, can hold you back from the life you once had. Nonetheless, [her] goal remains to encourage women to embrace both motherhood and their aspirations, without feeling that they must choose one over the other.”
These conversations come just two years after Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, became the second world leader to give birth while in office. She is also a millennial, just 37 years old when she gave birth, and the youngest leader New Zealand has had in over a century.
Like an increasing number of millennial mothers, I too am navigating a space that doesn’t fit any of the old labels defined by the bitter “mommy wars.” I know many moms who are building businesses or careers with or without full- or even part-time child care. Technology provides flexibility, and the COVID pandemic brought both a heightened awareness of the demands of family life and an acceptance of blending work and parenting. It’s not always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright stressful. But, in the year and a half since my daughter was born, I’ve learned that there is no easy way to be a mother.
I reached out to a few women whom I saw using the hashtag on Instagram and Facebook to find out how other women – Catholic millennial moms, in particular – felt about this social media trend. The disparate views represented by the women I spoke with reveal the many ways in which women are approaching motherhood and the pursuit of their other dreams.
How Women Are Living the Dream
For some women, having babies inspired or enriched their other dreams. Comedian Jennifer Fulwiler explores this in detail in her memoir, One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both. Books like hers speak to a growing number of women navigating these tensions.
“Having more babies created dreams I didn’t know I even had,” said Sara Lally, a photographer in Florida. “Before I had my second daughter, the thought of pursuing photography full-time had never occurred to me … I didn’t even have a camera. But here I am now, not at all encumbered by my three children, but rather inspired by them.”
“It’s a reminder that children enrich all of our dreams that are worth dreaming – they don’t put a damper on them,” echoed Amanda Gonzalez, also a photographer. “I’m a better everything now that I have kids: [a] better planner, creator, worker, communicator, more resilient, more creative, more confident. I have more ideas and more investment in the world around me.”
It seems that there is something about the act of mothering that nurtures creativity of all kinds, as women like Haley Stewart and Ashlee Gadd have written eloquently. Perhaps the act of co-creating life helps with the creation of art. Designers like Anna Liesemeyer of In Honor of Design and even Joanna Gaines have celebrated their motherhood as such.
The Pandemic Boon – and Boom
Technology has equipped modern moms to curate much more diverse working conditions than those of years past, both in improving flexibility with traditional 9-to-5s and in creating avenues for women to pursue their own ventures.
The number of self-employed mothers has risen in recent months, 8% higher in August 2022 than in January 2020 according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, which also reports that almost 10% of all mothers in the workforce are self-employed. And, in a recent Shopify survey of 1,532 mothers, over half said that they were interested in entrepreneurship.
“The pandemic exposed the impossible balancing act that society demands of working mothers, and how incompatible our ideals of the ‘good mother’ and the ‘career woman’ are. More than that, it’s shown us how unsustainable the nature of work has been for women with children,” wrote Roxanne Voidonicolas, content marketing lead at Shopify. “ … For the women who want to (and can afford to) work part-time, business ownership is particularly appealing. It allows them to prioritize their own obligations, guilt-free. Becoming a mom entrepreneur is the only work arrangement that doesn’t need to be binary: all in or all out.”
I took a poll in the Facebook group Catholic Women in Business and discovered that only 32% of the 184 women who responded work full time and without children (either they are not mothers, or they have child care). The rest work part time (with or without child care), work full-time alongside child(ren), or, like me, are full-time caregivers who freelance or have “side hustles.”
Another poll, conducted by Motherly’s LinkedIn page, asked mothers what helped them most with work/life balance. Of the 920 who responded, 92% selected either remote work or flexible work hours; only 2% selected on-site child care, and 6% selected supportive co-workers. These results indicate that most women are interested more in alternative ways to work than in having more support for a traditional, 40-hours-a-week on-site approach to their career. This kind of workplace evolution is integral to allowing many women the kind of integrated “babies and dreams” lifestyle they desire.
Economists found last fall that there was a “mini-baby boom” in 2021 in the U.S., which they partially attributed to the recent rise in flexible and remote work. One of the co-authors of the study told Axios that the COVID-19 pandemic is “the first recession where we actually see birth rates go up.” This increase was mostly among college-educated women (many of whom were able to work from home, giving them more flexibility) and first-time mothers.
I was one of those college-educated first-time mothers who had a baby in 2021 – and I have definitely benefited from Zoom calls, off-hours voice memos, and the expectation that babies and toddlers will sometimes interrupt virtual meetings.
The Challenge of “Doing It All”
Some of the women I talked to felt that the hashtag was just another example of our culture’s pressure for women to “lean in” and “have it all.”
“The reality is, sometimes the sacrifice of choosing life for an unplanned child is really difficult. It doesn’t change what the right thing to do is,” one woman said. “But it just is difficult in a lot of circumstances and isn’t as cut and dry as ‘you can have both.’”
It’s well-known now that a large number of women dropped out of the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these women worked in industries such as hospitality, child care, and leisure that were hit hardest by the pandemic, and notably the least accommodating to virtual work. Others left because of child care and school closures.
While women’s participation in the labor force has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the so-called “she-session” was a strong reminder that, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a now-famous essay for The Atlantic, “women still can’t have it all.” Child care can be unreliable, and many mothers want to provide that care themselves. Full-time working mothers may spend all of their time outside of work caring for their family and their home, leaving them with no time for passion projects. Without a full-time job, stay-at-home mothers may find themselves wondering what their passions even are outside of their family. I know I’m not the only woman who has become a mother and had a complete identity crisis.
Another woman messaged me and said that when she sees women telling their social media followers that they can have #babiesanddreams, she feels that “almost always, their husbands aren’t working full time. Or they work with them.”
Many women, like me, are able to pursue their dreams in between caring for a child because their husbands earn enough that they don’t have to rely on the woman’s income. Others are able to pay for child care or for help with housekeeping or other tasks.
For moms who are full-time caregivers, this woman pointed out, “it’s so hard” to run a business and care for children. “Not impossible, but not as easy as it’s made to seem … There’s very few in the space … who are actually full-time ‘childcare providers’ and running big businesses.”
“And so I get a bit disillusioned by the hashtag, I guess, because I don’t always resonate with either side. I’m just trying to do what the Lord called me to – which I call ‘bothness’ – and also sleep every once in a while.”
In response to the idea that #babiesanddreams is impractical or overly optimistic, Darrow “respectfully disagrees.” For some women, she told me, a fixed mindset might be holding them back from embracing the idea that they can pursue a dream other than motherhood while prioritizing their family.
More broadly, she added:
“I would contend that the definition of ‘dreams’ should not be confined solely to professional or secular pursuits outside the home. In our contemporary society, we tend to overlook the importance of the dreams that we can pursue within our homes, marriages, and relationships. Furthermore, it is essential to acknowledge that having babies does, in fact, significantly alter and reprioritize one's life, a fact that I, particularly, do not dispute. In my view, babies should always take priority over career aspirations, reflecting the unique responsibilities and blessings that come with motherhood.
“While I am passionate about helping women pursue their aspirations, I also respect the individuality of each of my clients and believe that it is ultimately between them and God to determine what their dreams are. I firmly reject the notion that motherhood precludes one from achieving personal goals outside of the realm of parenting. Such a view is not only misguided but also counterproductive to the progress and empowerment of women everywhere.”
Perhaps, then, the important point is that mothers can raise child(ren) while pursuing other dreams – but we might need to redefine or reshape our dreams in different seasons of life. Or, as Catholic mother and coach Lisa Canning wrote in her book The Possibility Mom: How to Be a Great Mom and Pursue Your Dreams at the Same Time, “Success [as a mother] is possible, but it might look different than you imagined.”
This is something Marie Kondo, famous for her home organization expertise, seems to have learned. She caused a firestorm online earlier this year after commenting that she had “kind of given up” on total tidiness after having three kids of her own.
Listening to God’s Voice
As Catholic mothers, reflection and prayer are key. God may ask us to pursue full-time work, full-time caregiving, or any blend in between. It’s up to us to discern the timing and the path that He wants us to follow.
In the meantime, we can do everything in our power to ensure that that path for mothers is as smooth as we can make it. For business leaders and HR professionals, that might mean implementing paid parental leave and flexible work policies. For entrepreneurs, it might mean creating products and services that make the motherhood journey easier. For women working in ministry, it might mean creating small groups and Bible studies for mothers.
For all of us, it means embracing what Jennifer Fulwiler calls the “village hustle.” It means fighting the idea that motherhood is something we should perfect on our own and building a community of imperfect women helping each other achieve their dreams.