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Mother’s Day: Nurturing ambition

Women attempt to balance work and family
/ Source: Forbes

“My mom, the CEO.”

Even today, decades after feminists torched their bras and started entering the workforce in droves, those words sound awkward together. One explanation is that there are still very few mom-CEOs. But the real reason the expression sticks in the throat is that no mom wants her kids to think of her primarily in her professional role. When accomplished women look back at what they wish they'd known about motherhood when they were younger, the message is clear: Work will always be available — but the period when your kids need mothering will not.

Like many women who are not CEOs, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, 67, CEO of Carlson Companies, struggled to balance her career ambitions with her family responsibilities. She itched to play a meaningful role at Carlson, a private travel and hotel empire that her father founded. But she also wanted children. When she was pregnant with her fourth child at the age of 28, she stopped working and agonized over the decision. “I went through one of those emotional periods where you have to face up to your choices. I realized that if I wanted to be the best possible parent, the right thing was to be at home.”

This is the moment she chose to address when I asked her and 40 other women to write letters to themselves for my book, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. With the illumination of hindsight, she advises, “Stop wasting energy wishing for the excitement of a career when you've committed yourself to being at home. Here's a little test: Ask yourself, ‘What will I regret most if I never get it done?’ Later there will be time to move on to the next dream. What I know now is that women can actually come pretty close to having it all, but you just can't have it all every day. It may need to be sequenced.”

Women who did not stop their careers to raise children also believed that the kids' needs trumped the demands of a job. Political commentator and author Cokie Roberts, 60, recalled her children's early years, during which she worked for a TV station and a magazine, as baby mayhem. “Don't feel oppressed by it,” she told her younger self. “These are very short [parenting] years in the scheme of life...You'll be in the workplace for 50 years, literally. There's no need to be doing it all at once. At times you have to, but there are times when you don't.”

The constant tension between work and motherhood also sharpened many mothers' insights as to what was most imperative. Best-selling author Nora Roberts, 55, was a single mom and sole breadwinner when her two sons were small. She had tried — and failed — at being a legal secretary, before, in 1979, she began writing her stories down in a spiral notebook.

Once she started writing for a living, the rule was that her boys couldn't interrupt her unless there was blood or fire. When they got older, the rule changed to arterial blood and active fire. Still, she reminds her younger self, “When juggling as much as you are, remember that some balls are glass and some are rubber. You can't drop the glass balls.” She once missed a key opportunity to appear on “Good Morning America” because she took her young son to get stitches after he ran into a flagpole. That was “the right choice about a glass ball.”

For many of these accomplished moms, being successful has meant redefining their notion of work and career. Rather than fighting to generate a steadily rising pile of promotions and accolades, they adopted a looser, less conventional approach. In her letter to her late-20s self, political commentator Mary Matalin, 53, says, “A career-path plan can become a career-crippling pathology. Contrary to all the advice books and columns, there really is not one true way to career success.”

I didn't speak to the children of these talented women. But my interviews suggested that “my mother, the CEO,” “my mother, the writer” and “my mother, the actress” would not be the first words their children would use to describe their mothers.

One of the tributes that Nora Roberts most cherishes is from the day her 22-year-old moved into his own apartment. He sent her flowers with a note that said, "Thanks for always being there."

Ellyn Spragins wrote the “Love and Money” column in The New York Times for three years and has written for O , The Oprah Magazine , Working Woman and The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Pennington, N.J. with her husband and two teenagers.