“Successful parenting is a principal key to the mental health of the next generation…In most societies throughout the world these facts have been and still are taken for granted and the societies organized accordingly. Paradoxically, it has taken the world’s richest societies to ignore these basic facts. Man and woman power devoted to the production of material goods counts as a plus in all our economic indices. Man and woman power devoted to the production of happy, healthy, and self-reliant children in their own homes does not count at all. We have created a topsy turvy world.”

John Bowlby, 1980. “Caring for Children” lecture.


We are grateful – VERY GRATEFUL – for the relative meritocracy our generation of women has enjoyed because of the work of courageous and visionary women who came before us. The work of the feminist revolution was a monumental accomplishment. But why, if it was so good does it feel so bad? The problem that had no name has evolved into a new feeling that something is not quite right. We talk about mommy wars, having it all, and leaning in. But these discussions are getting us nowhere because we refuse to call out the elephant in the room. It is time to talk about how the context around the feminist revolution devalued parental identity and in the process, left the baby behind.

How did we get here? The interesting story here is not the story of the feminist revolution. It is the story of the economic circumstances that forced our hand. Let’s hit some highlights of the last ~100 years:

  • Back on the farm work and family were altogether. Women worked inside, and men in the fields. Extended family was there, to care and be care for. Work and family were integrated. Balance depended on how quickly babies could grow and help. There wasn’t as much time or space for babies to develop “separation anxiety”, a term coined in the ~1920’s.
  • The industrial revolution brought a lot of change and some progress to everything from manufacturing to education. Efficiency was key, and people were brought together in factories, towns, and schools to produce more, better, faster, cheaper products for mass use. There is no doubt it raised the average standard of living. It also separated work and family, contributed to us thinking about FTE units rather than people, and led to negative impacts on the environment which we’re still cleaning up. Given the need for brawn at work as well as the biology of giving birth and nursing, men went to work and mothers mostly stayed home in literal and metaphorical villages (excepting WWII).
  • The knowledge economy ushered in opportunities that were more intellectual than physical, so it made sense that educated women had lots to contribute by the time the feminists of the 1960’s and 70’s set the table for us. So work “outside of the home” became commonplace for women…but also ignited “Mommy Wars”.

The problem, of course, is that home is where babies nap and eat and play and even cry. Then they grow into toddlers who need to taste, pull up to stand, and fall down. Then they are preschoolers whose job it is to learn how to be okay on their own, without mom and dad, so they can relate to other people and the world. It’s exhausting work, and they really love a hug when they get home. Then they are school kids who want to show you their umpteenth painting, celebrate their spelling test, or just cry with someone who loves them because Joey broke their heart today. The kids are home, but our work is “outside the home”.

The hard earned prize of the feminist revolution is that women now work and raise families in droves, bearing down at the intersection of existing paradigms of work and traditional notions of family. But these paradigms are not working for us. In fact, they are costing us dearly. On a personal level, work family paradigms put us in an untenable position — damned if you do, damned if you don’t. From a societal perspective, they are hindering our ability to survive economically and promoting a world view absent of humanity. We are operating under a false dichotomy, and everyone is losing.

Women. Childbirth is nothing compared to what comes after. Being in both places take so many machinations they write movies and books about it, most of them parodies. Parodies. We work and raise children, but it is hard because we either feel guilt-ridden when we are at work or undervalued when we are at home. And leading? Forget about it. By and large, women are not leading, and it is not hard to see why. Becoming a leader in your profession requires even more sacrifice on the family side. The big jobs require even more hours of the day at the office, and most of us don’t have the stomach for that. This is why people telling us to “lean in” is not helpful. A thinly veiled recycling of the feminist revolution, “one more time with feeling!” leaning in hasn’t worked in the past and thank goodness, it probably won’t work today. Because the day women betray their authenticity is the day the world loses on every front.

What about the children? There are decades of research on the bonding time required for secure attachment between children and parents, especially mothers. They don’t put an exact number to it, but you can bet it’s more than the US average of 10.3 weeks, among the shortest and least supported maternity leaves of the developed world. Prominent female leaders like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer who worked through a ~3 week maternity “pause” are not doing American children any favors either. Did she have an appendectomy or a baby?

This is not a matter of opinion, but rather neuroscience. Studies out of Michael Meany’s lab of McGill University have shown that parenting behaviors, even subtle ones, can have long-lasting effects on DNA. Of course, parents are only human, so it’s a blessing that neuroplasticity gives individuals opportunities to improve and change attitudes and behaviors over a lifetime. But the fact remains that childhood experiences matter, and less business for AA, therapists, rehab, and jail would not be a bad thing.

The first few weeks and months are only just the start of the many things a child needs at home from his parents. Yes, his parents. We’ve had the data for years, but we don’t discuss it because it’s a square peg in the round hole of our current paradigm for work and might jeopardize women’s liberation. Mothers’ biology makes us the children’s first masters in the grand apprenticeship of how to become the best possible human being. Apprenticeship with mothers as the first master. It’s an honor and a blessing that grows us as much as them. It’s a lot more complex than blacksmithing though, so it does take a village, just like Hillary said. But Dad’s at work, the grandparents are thousands of miles away, mom has a job to do, and few lights are on the in village these days. So, we end up paying strangers to raise our kids (and take care of our aging parents).

What about men? In the documentary Miss Representation Jennifer Siebel Newsom shines a shocking light on the increasingly misogynistic media. Despite decades of focus on diversity, we still struggle with implicit biases that hurt women at work. Why? Why? Why? We wonder. Could the men who still control the vast majority of power in the world be more than a little cranky because women’s hard-earned “equality” means we compete for their job, on their turf, in their style? (HBS trains us to do just that) This is a shame, because leadership teams which have a complementary composite of skills and styles would build a more abundant company and future. In addition, men who must and do pull their weight at home also feel squeezed. Today everyone’s work requires more time than ever (so much information, so many emails, so many meetings). So all of that good and healthy stuff we associate with home is not readily available to men either. The fact that couples are too tired to have sex after so much triaging is probably not irrelevant.

What about business? We’ve become painfully politically correct, but that’s not the most pernicious problem. In the current design, rising through the ranks of leadership requires allocating little time to raising children, even when we have them. If leadership is really about helping people grow and getting our own self out of the way to see the truth in situations and in others, aren’t we all skipping a step on the way to the corner office? Whom will you (man or woman) be willing and able to grow if you walked away from your kids, physically and/or emotionally? And who will follow you?

The command and control boss was effective when industrial production efficiency was the goal, but now that so many industries need redesigning and innovation, we need leaders who can better engage a checked-out and fearful workforce. Asking women to be more like men in their style by “leaning in” is contributing to a culture already heavy on the “me” when what we need is more “we.” Queen Bees and corporate narcissists no longer cut it. Getting beyond our own selves to the “we” – empathy – is exactly the skill our children help us hone when we are connected.

What if we were to reimagine work family balance or even get rid of that concept altogether and ask an entirely new question: What do we need to do to help everyone breathe easier while pushing our society to a more abundant future? Can we envision a new way? What does it look like? What will it take? Can it be done?

Technology has made working across time and space possible, allowing the possibility for bringing work and home together again. Many of us who are entrepreneurs do this, flexibly while still playing at high levels (e.g., on Boards, executive groups, working with CEO’s and top teams, invited to take on leadership platforms). Much of what we do and how we work can seamlessly be done inside the large organizations in which so much money, people, and power reside (independent work won’t transform these). Can these these institutions be changed? We think so. Must they be changed? We think so.

Stay tuned for more on what it might look like for home and work to be integrated for women and men growing into leadership. Meanwhile, if you have ideas and/or work with an innovative company that can show us something about the New Way to Work and Lead, please leave a comment here, or contact us at or on twitter @jackieacho.

Once we envision a better future, we’ll never go back.


Picture from Roy Lichtenstein

Thanks to Eva Basilion for her contributions to this post. 

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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