“We don’t dispute the depth of our mother’s influence in our everyday lives, but when it comes to the workplace we draw an invisible line that we think keeps Mom out,” Ilana Tolpin Levitt writes,
That’s one of the main points Levitt makes at the start of What’s Mom Still Got To Do With It? And it is, I think, a good one. While we do run the risk of over-emphasizing our parents as the root of “everything,” Levitt’s statement seems valid.
Why not explore mother-daughter dynamics in the context of career if that might lead to some interesting insights? I’ll admit that I had never really considered the connection, and that although Levitt’s self-published book has a less-than-professional look to it, I was curious to hear her ideas.
Levitt, a career counselor and a licensed mental health professional, gives some background on her own mother, a psychoanalyst who Levitt always admired. Because she followed in her mother’s path in many ways, Levitt goes on to outline the category of daughter she falls under — the “copycat” — one of several other types she has identified during her years of work with clients. Levitt is sure to clarify that readers may fit into more than one category or type; they are there to help, she explains, not to box people in.
Some daughters rebel against their mothers, Levitt writes, even when it doesn’t serve them well, and this knee-jerk reaction can affect their work lives, too. As children, some daughters had to parent their own parents, which can lead to a host of patterns in adulthood.
Levitt quotes clients who wonder how a mother’s disapproval has followed them into the workplace, and those who always feel overworked by their bosses, but can’t figure out why. She also quotes women who make strong statements such as, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I just knew I didn’t want to be like my mother.”
Levitt briefly summarizes the dynamics that comprise each of her daughter archetypes. Then she runs through some quick tips to help readers recognize their patterns and actively work on their careers.
One tip in particular stood out to me as useful: “Change ‘I should’ to ‘I want.’”
The “should” in our minds “can very well be leftover pressure from when we were told [by our parents] what we should and should not do,” Levitt writes.
But doing things because we tell ourselves we have to can backfire.
“Did you ever feel like you should stay late to finish a project? If it happens often, that might make you resent your boss, and could cause you to look for a new job,” Levitt writes.
Instead of assuming that someone above you is making you do this, “decide that you’re staying late because you want to, since it potentially means less work the next day.” Converting a “should” to a “want,” Levitt notes, “helps release you from the continued adolescent battle with your […] mom.”
While this tip appears in the chapter on what Levitt calls the “maverick” daughter, it might be good advice for a range of readers. It also speaks to a larger theme of the book: make sure you actively choose how you approach your career as well as your day-to-day job, and that you’re not just reacting to the lessons you absorbed as a kid.
Levitt incorporates a number of case studies about women who have pieced together how their childhoods pervade their careers that may be helpful to readers seeking to do the same. But while Levitt does explore various types of circumstances — mothers who gave wonderful emotional support yet weren’t able to provide models for education or career; mothers who were recent immigrants, and the attendant pressures that this placed on their first-generation daughters; childhoods that got sped up or cut short due to a mother’s alcoholism — she also jumps to a lot of conclusions without providing evidence.
For instance, at one point she writes, “a girl learns not only how to view the world around her, but also how to respond to it and feel safe in it. All of this happens before she’s six years old!”
What research shows that all of this happens before the age of six? It would have been easy for Levitt to cite a theory from human development studies, or to make a quick reference to established research — and it would have made her point more believable.
Levitt also oversimplifies things at times, and assumes causality where it may not in fact exist. For instance, she writes: “When a baby is born, mother and child form a strong, emotional bond. It can be exponentially more powerful between a mother and daughter because they are the same sex.”
The majority of Levitt’s readers, statistically speaking, are probably cisgender women. But her statement makes a false assumption about gender and sex. And even if she weren’t overlooking our present-day understanding of gender identity, she’s still making other overly-bold assumptions in this realm.
The exclusion of transgender folks aside, this statement begs for sources, or an explanation. Will we really not find a single mother-son relationship as intense as mother-daughter relationships? That seems difficult to believe. There are plenty of sons who are extremely close with their moms.
Even if the idea were true, though, that mother-son pairs are never as close, could we truly say that there is just “one simple reason” for it? In reality, innumerable cultural forces are at work on all of us, and tons of complex gender dynamics and expectations affect the relationships within each family. Levitt’s “one” reason without any sources behind it seems suspect.
The book, then, definitely needs polishing. But even with some oversimplified pronouncements and a lack of references to sources, Levitt may spark an idea in readers who haven’t been able to figure out why their jobs are going (or not going) a certain way.
All of the book’s shortcomings aside, its case studies, and Levitt’s insights from her clients, might help.
What’s Mom Still Got To Do With It? Breathe New Life Into Your Career By Understanding Your Mother-Daughter Relationship
Ilana Tolpin Levitt
Paperback, 160 pages