“Sorry guys, I’m in here,” I said as firmly as I could without sounding bitchy, with more apology for being there than defense of my right to it, and more a sense of embarrassment than anger that the locked door to the supply closet had been opened. ‘Shit, did they see anything? Could they hear the hissing and whirring of my 5 year old breast pump as it struggled to produce enough milk for my third baby?’
As a mom of three, I’m a rare breed in the corporate workforce. I can literally count on one hand the number of women I know personally in full-time corporate jobs who have more than 2 children. Actually I can count them with one finger. And having recently returned to working full-time shortly after having my third, I can see why. It’s been an interesting experience that I’ll chalk up to field research for my upcoming book. I think next time I’ll consider email surveys.
After baby number three, and closing the child-bearing chapter of my life, I decided to return to work. The failed experiment of trying to be a full-time stay-at-home mom had left me feeling weary, isolated and, despite not sitting down for nearly 18 months straight, bored. I’d missed some aspects of working outside of my home: Adult conversation, lunch, and pretty shoes, to name a few. So I set out on a job search, my first serious effort since I left corporate life in 2012, what I was certain then was for good, both in the literal and philosophical sense.
I found the job search a bit more daunting than when I was young and pre-children. This time around, I felt I had more to prove. I went straight to LinkedIn and began informing old colleagues, clients, and friends that I hadn’t in fact fallen off the globe or died. I assured everyone I was done with playdates and diaper duty and not only was I ready to return to the conference room, the water cooler, and the commute, I was excited about it [think of all the self-help audio books I’ll consume in traffic]. My working mom friends were incredulous – ‘but you have three kids’ with a look I’d expect more if I said I was trying out for Cirq de Soleil [also, thanks, I’d forgotten there were 3, I am just that tired]. Then there were my stay-at-home mom friends who looked at me as if watching me board the last life boat from a sinking ship. But on the networking circuit, I tried not to bring up the fact that I had three kids, because I worried what people, potential employers, clients, might think: Is she ‘done’ or is she going to keep having kids? Will she be reliable? Will she be driven enough? Will she travel?
During my interview process, I easily addressed the gap on my resume, filling it with legitimate, if sparse, freelance work in marketing and social media. The subject of family life, being a big employment law no-no, didn’t come up, and I successfully deflected the clever attempts at getting around it, so much so that no one knew I had three children. In fact, until it was time to fill out W-2’s, my employer didn’t even know I had one. Whenever the subject of kids came up at work, I was always careful to assure that my family life wouldn’t interfere with my work. But my clever strategy of downplaying, even hiding my identity as a mom, backfired. I got the job at the hot up-and-coming company I would have thrived at in my 20’s, but in my determination to prove I was capable of keeping up with my young, childless counterparts, I compromised my values, my self-care, and most of all my commitment to a healthy work-life balance. The quality of my work suffered as the quantity of it exploded.
So I started my return to corporate life as an apology, not just to my children, but to my employer and my coworkers. The work hours slowly crept over into evening play time, drained bath time, delayed dinner, and eventually invaded the weekends. When I wasn’t working, I was thinking about work. Even when I slept, I dreamt of the tasks I hadn’t completed. I lived in constant fear of letting everyone down. One cup of coffee begged for another, and my pumping sessions became shorter and further in between. When a child got sick, I felt sheepish about disappearing from the fray for more than an hour, constantly checked my phone, and still paid the price for my absence by working late into the evening. Each time my personal life took me away from work, I responded apologetically, as if I’d done something wrong. And then I wondered why my home life began to slip down the priority list.
There is a well-known expression in the working world, especially to women. Dress for the job you want. I remember as a young sales assistant at the start of my career being told after distributing the leftovers from a catered lunch, that I should only act like a waitress if I expected to become one. I remember pausing in the middle of writing an email recently as I remembered that moment, and the realization dawned on me that I had committed a similar, if more pronounced, misstep in my career, and an even bigger one as a mom. I’d underestimated my worth.
I have enough thoughts on the larger societal issues that plague mothers in the workforce for an entirely separate post. But I’m grateful to have learned that downplaying my role as a mother in order to thrive in a corporate environment served no one, least of all my family, and certainly not me. Shortly after that realization, I left the job that simply wasn’t the right fit. And I let go of a chapter in my career that becoming a mother had closed years ago. I couldn’t be more excited about the next chapter, which includes the job I want as a writer, and being the mom I want to be.