Biting the hand that feeds people – Natural enemies of the working mom

Shortly after confessing my first pregnancy to my boss, I was thanked for my service to the company as I walked out of the office carrying a box of my personal belongings on my little belly.  The smug look on my manager’s face as she read me my lay-off notice might easily have been mistaken for satisfaction that she was saving herself the trouble of fielding frequent requests for sick days and early departures for soccer practice.  But really it was that she, as a mother, knew that no force is more motivating than having mouths to feed.  And since I had demonstrated the talent and initiative required to excel at not only my job but hers, all she was saving herself was a spot in the unemployment line, or so she thought.  Truth is, I didn’t want her job. I didn’t want my job either if we’re being totally honest. I was miserable at the company, but being up front with prospective employers about your impending due date doesn’t put you at the top of the candidate list.  Rookie mistake.  I vowed that the next time I was pregnant that I wouldn’t tell my employer or any potential employers until my water broke and/or I started crowning during the weekly sales call, whichever came first.  Luckily, in my subsequent job, my employers were total badasses and I didn’t have to hide or feel nervous about anything.  They didn’t give my projects away or stop calling on me for my expertise, and they respected my doctors appointments and travel restrictions.  They knew I was capable and trustworthy, and that just because I was a mom didn’t mean I would lose focus, but rather more likely, and because of it, I wouldn’t.  They sent me a baby gift from The Land of Nod and made sure I got an invite to the company Christmas party while I was on a lengthy maternity leave, at the end of which my job was waiting for me despite my lapsed FMLA coverage. I now call them friends.  But sadly, this is rare.  Why is that?

The Natural Enemies of the Working Mom


Interestingly, my better experience was while working for men.  My first manager was a father of small children, so he knew what to expect, so to speak.  Three times over.  If my calendar was blocked for a private appointment, he scheduled around me and didn’t ask questions, even when my doctor visits went to weekly.  He called me the afternoon before my scheduled c-section, not to check I’d gotten all my work done before checking out, but to tell me to stop, and wish me good luck.  When I came back from leave, I had a new manager, also a man.  Though there were one or two awkward conversations about the 20 minute blocks of time marked private on my Outlook calendar, we had a great working relationship.  I kept to my pumping schedule so I didn’t leak breastmilk all over a conference table while presenting campaign statistics, and he didn’t ask questions.   Based on my experience, it seems that men are too quickly assigned as the arch-enemy to the working mom.  My theory is that, for the most part, men don’t want or need to know the details, and as long as the job is getting done well and they don’t have to answer for your absences in meetings excessively, they’re pretty content.  If they themselves have children, I believe they have a little extra compassion, especially if their partner is also a working parent.

Other moms

Women are genetically and physiologically programmed to feel more compassionate and nurturing toward other human beings, so why wouldn’t this apply in the workplace?  I’m no scientist, but I can use science-y words, so my hypothesis is that it does to a point, where that same physiological design has a built-in kill switch, a point beyond which it’s ‘on’, and no one had better get in the way of a mother caring for, including providing for, her young.  In the wild, mothers maim and kill to feed their offspring, fighting off competitors, and sometimes making dinner out of them.  It’s no different in the working world, where jobs are often scarce and abundant in competition.  Chances are, your job is being stalked like a herd of gazelles, especially while you’re out on maternity leave.  Suddenly the expectations seem, and maybe are, higher, both from management’s viewpoint, and that of your peers.  In some cut-throat industries, the slightest limp in your productivity could have the carnivores on your scent.  But what about women who don’t have kids?

Other women

Did you used to baby-talk to your cat and carry him around like an infant before you became a mom?  Just me then.  Okay, well those killer protective instincts are already there, we just get better at using them when we have babies.  Not to mention, women can unknowingly be each other’s, as well as their own, greatest saboteurs.  A couple of jobs ago, I worked mostly with women in their twenties, quite a few of them fresh out of college.  The mere thought of having babies sat dormant in the primitive part of their brains, waiting patiently for the wedding or the promotion to take place and free up RAM.  They knew little of the world I knew, just a cubical wall away:  Newly minted thirty, elastic-banded jeggings, and a 3-month-long hangover without the benefit of so much as a sip of wine for at least that long.  I quickly embraced my new world, and loved every minute.  While my young colleagues ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their desks, I wolfed down lunch for two in my car so I could lean the seat back and take a first trimester power nap, then plow through the rest of my work and get home in plenty of time for  dinner and a foot rub!  Since my coworkers made working extra hours a habit, my projects grew fewer and smaller,  even though I worked harder and smarter so maybe no one would notice I was pregnant. Because I was pregnant, it seemed, at least next to my furiously over-working peers, I was also less reliable, when the opposite couldn’t have been more true.


Then there is the worst culprit in our own downfall:  US.  I’m talking to you [and also me].  With competition, managing-up challenges, and logistical pressures inherent to parenthood, we have our work cut out for us.  And yet we add more pressure to ourselves than any of these other factors.  Whether it’s fear of an immediate consequence, like losing a job or losing out on a promotion, or a long-term perception issue, we spend a lot of time worrying instead of doing.  But lest we be seen as not pulling our weight, we feel the need to compensate for shortcomings no one else may have noticed, if they even exist. We feel compelled to miss a soccer practice or take an out of town trip, adding to our stress and guilt.  I pride myself for pushing back starting as early as my first working pregnancy.  I may have lost a job because of it, but it was a job I’d have quit 2 days back from maternity leave anyway, when I wasn’t willing to pull long hours to keep up with my young, childless counterparts.  In my next job, I pushed back on travel and late meetings from day one, and it wasn’t easy.  I had to work extra hard to prove my worth, but it was worth it because I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t.

In some ways, we make the workplace unfriendly with our own habits.  There are certain expectations that apply to all people who work, and maybe the spotlight is on us as working moms, but it’s up to us to make sure we’re pulling our weight, and also being honest with ourselves, and our employers, about what we need as well as what we can give to our careers.  Working mothers are a necessary, and positive part of the workforce, and we need to remember that, and learn how to communicate it with our actions, consistently.  We may not be able to control the difficult bosses or the men and tweens who appear to work circles around us, but we can still provide as much or more value.  And when we find ourselves in an environment where we’re making sacrifices we shouldn’t, apologizing for being moms, or made to feel less valuable, it’s time to find another hunting ground.


Do you miss it?

Staying home can be isolating on a number of levels.  Believe it or not, small children aren’t much for conversation, unless you count the minute-by-minute requests for everything from necessary-for-survival to ‘really?’ and ‘again? But I just cleaned that.’  And you can only bitch to your husband so much about how you think Wintertime may actually have something personal against you.  I was warned, so I recognized it when it started to happen to me, and I acted by reaching out. 

I talked to other moms.

As I started thinking about returning to work, the burning query on my mind became “do you miss working?”

When I asked the mother of two, soon to be three, who was born to carry and raise children, and throw designer birthday parties, and look like a J.Crew model even while 9 months pregnant, I didn’t even have to wait for her response.  I knew her well enough to know that she’d left work as soon as she got the chance, and never looked back.  Not even on her most frustrating day.  Next to her, I don’t feel cut out for this.

When I asked the brand-new mommy, who probably only just returned from her first postpartum checkup to stare lovingly at her sleeping newborn, I was a little surprised at her response, at first.  This career-minded go-getter who I once worked for surprised probably more people than me when she announced her expectancy and subsequent departure from the working world.  I admit, I felt like I was on the winning team of a game of Red Rover when I learned she was joining the mommy sisterhood, and I was, and am, thrilled for her.  But when she responded that she didn’t miss work one bit, I felt a familiar pain in my abdomen, the one second only to labor pain and escaped by no mother: guilt. Where had my desire to just gaze lovingly at my beautiful children gone?  Where was the maternal inferno that had once turned me into a photo-taking, baby-talking, stroller-pushing, minivan-driving mommy? Next to her, I felt like a mother about to abandon her children to rejoin the greedy, material, superficial world of corporate America. 

And then there was the query I couldn’t bring myself to make.  The one to my working mom friends, who have never stayed home with their children beyond a 6-12 week maternity leave, if they were lucky.  For some it was by choice, for others, not so much.  Some of these women would give me evils just for writing this.  Others would ease my mind by reassuring me that there are many ways to be a great mother, and staying home is only one of them. But if I asked if they would miss working, I’m not sure what responses I would get.  Some, like I used to, would say they could never envision not working, giving up their financial independence, spending day after day trying to entertain toddlers and clean a house. Others, like my friend who left work after the birth of her second child, would say they would give anything to spend precious time with their children, and never look back.

And the final query is the hardest of all, the one to myself.  The decision to work or not work, for me, is far more than just financial, though that is the driving factor.  When I think about how I’d love to travel the world with my children and maybe even raise them in a foreign country, I see working as a compromise and even an opportunity to give my children something greater than what I can give them now.  And then I wonder, what if I’m selling today to pay for a future that may never happen?  Not to get all philosophical, but what matters more?  Now or a lifetime?  Either way, I know in my heart that I do not miss working.  I may miss being financially comfortable, and maybe I miss goals and grownup conversations. I may even miss wearing clothes with accessories [hell, I miss clothes with buttons and zippers], but I don’t miss kissing my children goodbye at daycare and driving an empty minivan to the office, sobbing to Toddler Tunes.

Do you miss it?

12 things I cleaned up today

  1. milk at least 4 times [I’m serious, and I may have cried during one, what?]
  2. cat vomit once [rockstar hubs got the second round, thanks babe]
  3. putrid deep freezer ooze, since one of the kids turned the freezer off
  4. antibiotic-fueled diaper blowout
  5. 3-year-old’s culinary creations consisting of dried pasta, fresh strawberries, crushed tangerines, and all the sugar I had left for tomorrow’s coffee [yay]
  6. crushed cereal
  7. oatmeal [that people use this cement-alternative as a beauty treatment raises some questions for me; it’s certainly not making my house look prettier]
  8. yogurt
  9. 16 ounces of sparkling water [just grateful it wasn’t mommy’s special sparkling water, ahem]
  10. a cup of tea [after I enjoyed a quarter of it at least]
  11. Something I can’t identify.
  12. Something NASA can’t identify.

Did you clean up anything interesting today?