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.
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?
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.