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Trailblazing Mamahood in the Workplace

Because I had my first child quite early, almost all of my experience in the workplace has been as a mama.  I did what I could to balance work and life from the beginning, but I always felt that my career advancement was slowed because I couldn't work beyond my strick 40-hour work week, having to often pump during my breaks or leave right away in the evenings to pick up from childcare.  I have had mentors that were mamas, some of whom helped me navigate the "do's" and the "don't's" of the working world, what was allowed or not.  I've had mentors that were papas, who seemed generally less flexible in my experience.

An urbanMama recently emailed with her experience:

I am a professional with a 8 month old and 3 year old.  My managers job-share and also have young children.  They recently began the job-share position and I believed they would be great mentors for other mothers.  However, that is not the case.  Both are working well over their aloted job-share hours without compensation (as professionals they receive a salary rather than hourly wages) which leaves little time for collaboration, much less mentorship.  Even worse, they have turned into hypocrites who sympathize with me about sick children or decreased milk supply all the while questioning my commitment to my work because I am focused on efficiency and streamlining processes.  They acknowledge the toll of the position on their personal lives (which prompted their job-share request) and agree that we shouldn't have to work so many hours beyond the 40-50 hour work week.  Yet they have embraced the traditional male-dominated workplace values by praising the single and/or childless colleagues who do have the time to stay late day after day and work on the weekends.  I do not have a chance to stay late because I have to pick up children from childcare.  I bring my work home but don't get a chance to look at it until after dinner, baths, bedtime stories, laundry, dishes, etc...around 10pm...even with a partner that is right next to me helping out.

At this point I am bitter and disappointed.  What happened to the sisterhood of working mothers? How can women in management positions who have fought for progressive work-life balance solutions turn around and adopt the values the very values that they sought to change?


Have you seen mamas in the workplace who have come before you help pave new policies or understanding of the work-life balance?  Or, have you seen mamas sink into the status quo and perpetuate existing standards, that conflict with our instincts to allow mamahood to be a priority, even in our worklives?  What has been your experience with mamahood in the workplace?

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At my former place of work, after the birth of my baby I was deliberating whether or not to quit... because I no longer wanted to work 50 hours/week (imagine that!). One mama offered to talk to me about "work/family balance". She worked full-time. Basically she wanted to help me learn to live with the guilt.

Another mama (in a very high managerial position) told me to suck it up and "do the right thing" for my family-- by which, she meant "make money". She told me she HAD to work full-time when her children were little...and she seemed to be bitter about it, wanting others to suffer as she did.

A retired male Surgeon (I work in the medical field) told me I should not let family get in the way of my career.

Yet another mama colleague repeatedly told me she had to work in a really crappy part-time job while her son was little... and I should do the same. A nice part-time job in her department (which I desperately wanted) changed into a full-time job after our conversation, so I did not apply.

My male Boss (who is a dad, a Surgeon, but works probably 80+ hours/week) seemed upset that I was considering leaving... he became very cold and distant to me. The possibility of staying part-time was not considered-- I suspect, because he was upset with my decision. He made a remark or two that questioned my loyalty to the department.

I ended up quitting. And despite the lull in my career, and the financial hardships, I could not be happier with my decision.

I honestly think that working full-time is right for some mamas and families, but I often suspect it's at a cost. And I think there are probably a LARGE number of those mamas who would choose otherwise if it weren't for the cultural, as well as financial, constraints.

I think if you're at the bottom of the food chain (cashier, receptionist, administrative assistant) there's not a whole lot of "mentoring" or work/like balance to be had. Ditto is you are a single parent. There has not been a whole lot of sisterhood to begin. "if you go pick up your sick kid, who's going to answer the phones????"

Did I tell you about the one where the woman boss wanted me to bundle up a infant with a 104 fever and catch the bus to work (had no car) and collate papers? I got a millions of 'em folks?

So my experience in the workplace is skewed by class issues. I had worked in places were professional class employees were allowed to bring a sick/no school kid into work while administrative staff were not. This was a municipal agency in the metro area. Most professional women in an office environment have not aligned themselves with pink collar workers in my experience. My impression was that it was hard enough for professional class women to be perceived as more than a "secretary". I don't think I can fault them for that, even if it is a different choice than I would make.

I think this might also be why it is hard in general for women to be seen as supporting family-friendly policies. The impression seems to be that it can affect your own career trajectory.

I've actually found that female bosses, who choose not to have any children in order to remain devoted to their careers, to be the hardest folks of all to work for. Two literally drove me out of two separate workplaces when I was a Mom. Now I'm in grad school, pursuing a job that will eventually have full union protection, so I won't have to deal with superiors biases and unspoken "expectations" anymore.

I am expecting my second child in July, and have worked full-time since my first was 5 months. I am in the thick of work-family balance, as I just proposed to turn my managerial position into a job share, and am waiting to hear the results.

The good news: I have the support of the Human Resources department, which is managed by two women who have children and who want to expand flexible work arrangements for all employees, because they have seen them work well in the past. In addition, when I proposed the job share to my boss, who doesn't have children and is essentially married to her job, she did acknowledge that, while she couldn't emphathize with me, she supported me and want to help me "work something out."

The bad news: I doubt my job share will be approved. I think they are scared by the thought of having, essentially, two leaders working as one. And, I think my bosses will take it as an opportunity to reduce costs (I work for a public agency hit really hard by the abysmal state budget picture.) and let me go part-time while *maybe* allowing me to hire extra part-time administrative support.

So, it's not the best that I'd hoped for. And, at the same time, it's hard not to just be grateful for the little bit of support I am getting.

I think ProtestMama is right -- you don't get flexible work when you are at the bottom of the food chain. I would also add that my experience is showing me that you also may not get it when you are near the top. People just can't wrap their minds around a leadership model that includes (as a job share would) collaboration between two people and work-life balance and actual boundaries.

When will we get beyond leadership models that are, essentially, built upon traditional male roles and expectations? It's not fair to mothers or fathers!

I have found that, for me, there isn't balance without clear boundaries. The problem with that is you either have to draw boundaries around what you do for your family or your job, or both, and that's pretty tough to do with your family. If your child is sick and needs to go to the doctor, you can't take it home with you to do later. You can draw boundaries around your work, and an employer can understand and support that but it doesn't mean they don't still need work to get done, no matter where you are on the food chain (although I do agree with ProtestMama's assessment in general). I guess you could also say you can draw boundaries about what you can do for your family, but that doesn't mean you won't still be leaving work undone there as well. I think that's probably more of a hot topic that I don't want this thread to lead into, but I think we all know the experience of feeling like we have let something go that we wish we hadn't, whether it's by choice or not.

In my family we've had to make the decision that one of us can have more cloudy boundaries at work in order to have a livable income. That's my husband, and it's based on finanaces as well as the fact that we have young children and it's our preference that I'm the one home with them for now. I have a professional license and work in the health care field. I'm able to work a very part-time job that allows me to set work hours that fit our family life and I do all my work on site so there is a clear start time and finish time. It just has to be that way for us right now because I'm not willing to draw the boundary on not being the helper at school or baking cupcakes for the birthday or going on the field trip, or whatever. I'd much rather say no to working an extra day. I'm fully aware of the fact that it means I'm not advancing professionally but I also know that I have time to do that in a few years and I won't have these years with my children ever again.

Honestly, I think we've been suckered into thinking we could indeed have it all, all at the same time. I just don't think it's possible. I don't find that particularly frustrating or unacceptable, frankly. Maybe that's where the balance is. Do what you can, when you can, and eventually it all balances out.

I agree with mom22, especially about thinking that we can have it all. I worked in an extremely male dominated field before becoming a mother, where 50 hour+ work weeks were the norm. I left an office when I was pregnant (and eventually miscarried) because they said that it was against office policy to have part-time workers, even though I'd gotten excellent reviews and significant pay raises while working there. At that point, I was 28 and the most senior female professional in the office. I then moved to a small office that was willing to be flexible with my work hours once I had kids and were very flexible when I asked to go part-time when I was pregnant and getting sick every day for the full nine months. As it turned out, they never had enough work for me to go back to work there after my maternity leave, and now the office is closed due to retirement of the partners, partly due to the slow economy.

My husband and I are in the same profession, and I think we both realize that one of us needs to have the hard core job that pays benefits, allows one of us to work up the corporate ladder, travel for work, etc., while the other would have the more flexible job. After 3 years at home now, I've started my own business that is extremely part-time and probably more like a hobby than anything else. At this point it's enough to keep me somewhat satisfied professionally and intellectually, although I miss working dearly. I'd go back in a minute if I could get a job working 3-4 days/week and do something challenging, but just don't see that happening. The few other women with kids that I know in the field are continually pressured to work full-time when they have had the opportunity to work part-time, or else they do the traditional high-pressure 50+ hour work week. It seems like a no-win situation professionally. At the same time, I can't really complain, since the choice is there for me. It's just too bad that it's an all or nothing choice.

I work at a company with about 75% of the workforce women in their late 20s. The maternity leave allowance is pretty good (relative of course - I am Australian and nothing hereis as good as 12 months leave), they even profess to be flexible, and in many ways that is true. The frustrating thing for me is that I am expected to pick up the slack for two colleagues who are on part time schedules. I lose a lot of my flexibility because they have flexible working arrangements. I guess the bottom line is that someone needs to do the work and their families suffer as a result.

I would love to work PT instead of FT, but am very worried about doing this now with the economy taking such a turn, as I would likely only be guaranteed PT work if I make this switch and would need to work FT again at some point in the not too distant future.

I feel a bit stuck, but also lucky to have a job. I know for people who have been out of the work force for quite a while taking care of their children, things are difficult in terms of finding a job and will likely continue to be. It seems that it should not be this way. Many countries encourage mothers or fathers to take a year off, and give them compensation for this. The US doesn't seem to be there yet, unfortunately...

It's funny, because when I took over bella stella, I did it so I could "work with my kid". I found out pretty quickly that working with my 2 1/2 year old daughter was too much for me. Since then the policy has always been, "bring your kid to work with you...at your peril." Some seem better at it than others. My long time employee, Feather, has nerves of steel, and does it regularly. Me? I end up feeling like a bad worker and a "bad mom" at the same time, and try to avoid it when I can. I have come to believe that working with your kids just isn't going to work for everybody (it is really just too much work, in my opinion). I think, long-term, we need to work towards paid maternity leave and better child care options.
In the meantime, of course, it's good to be able to have my kid with me in a pinch. Thanks to every understanding mama and papa customer who has understood the temper tantrum or nursing that has gotten in the way of their checking out or getting full attention!

Thank you for this post.

I just read an article in the NYT "Backlast: Women Bulling Women at Work" Wohttp://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/business/10women.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&em

The common denominator between the article and this post is how women can impede the success of other women, and as a result women do not get ahead professionally. I appreciate UrbanMama's bringing up the issue of dynamics of women's interaction at work regarding children. It is a huge issue and in the interests of our professional futures, one I am glad to see being discussed.


I appreciate UrbanMama's bringing up the issue of dynamics of women's interaction at work around children.

All of these stories really resonate. What a difficult compromise it can be to be a mother and have a job.

I am lucky to own and run a company with my husband. I have no boss so I can take time off when I need to (as can he). Further, my husband shares parenting with me 100%. We take turns dropping off and picking up at preschool, making dinner, putting to bed, etc. If I need to work late, he covers for me and vice versa.

I never loved my job so much as when I first went back after maternity leave. It was really hard to leave my baby at daycare (really hard!) but I enjoyed the challenges and identity that work offered. I had been going a bit crazy at home.

Now, I have to admit, it is all too much sometimes. My husband I both work at least 40 hours a week (often much more). We get stressed out and then experience health issues as a result. I was talking with my mom on Mother's Day and she said that I probably just needed to take some time off, that women just aren't as career-oriented as men. Sigh.

I guess I see different issues here. Workplace flexibility is important, but so are self-limits, good communication and sharing the load with partners. I could never do all of the kid care and work full time for a demanding employer. Something's gotta give in that case. But I also would never want to give up my career, my identity outside the home, and I don't think (as my mother might) that that makes me any less feminine or natural.

why employers/management/HR, especially if they are women with kids, do this to other women i will NEVER understand. i went back to work PT when my son was about 5 months (was previously FT), and i fought tooth and nail with my largely female administrators and HR constantly about these issues. i was truly flabbergasted, since i stupidly believed that this was a job that was, by definition, devoted to the well-being of children. it was very much like "hey, we have square peg jobs, so square yourself back up. no room for your new-mama roundness!" jerks.
by a wonderful twist of fate, i fell into a new job for a boss that truly gets it. during my interview, she said "i believe that if you don't feel like you're supporting your own family, how can you support the families that we work with?" i almost cried. she is an inspiration for me, and i strive to implement her policy where ever i go. i think that the only way this will get better is if we lead by example.

After my first child was born, I went back part-time with a supervisor who was a man, childless, and absolutely wonderful with allowing me to schedule myself as I wanted. It was perfect for me. Trouble was, it was completely impractical for the program and basically meant I was useless for the first few months of my return until I was ready to work a different schedule. I'm so grateful he let me do it, but I'm honest about the fact that it was a stupid program decision and he's no longer the supervisor. After my second child, I had a female supervisor (also childless) who was totally inflexible about my hours despite my protests to ease back in the way I had before. I'll be honest, she ran a much more efficient and effective program regardless of how much we all hated working for her. That's my way of saying that it's not always about people not being family friendly but, rather, being business friendly. She wasn't doing anything horrible to me, just not supporting wasting company money so I could feel better about my situation.

When I was expecting my 2nd, I was about a year into a new job. My boss (dean) was a woman who had had her first (and only) child about 30 years before me, also after her first year. Her pregnancy was unplanned (although wanted), and so the timing stunk: she would deliver the baby about a week before the new semester began. When she told her (male, of course) dean, he said, "Oh, I'm sorry you'll be leaving us." When she said she had no intention of leaving her job, he reminded her that there would be NO provisions at all for her to take time off. So, she had her baby and went back to a full time teaching and research load a week after he was born.

Then she spent her later career forging these amazing leave plans for women in the next generations to have time off with their babies, always telling that story and saying that she didn't want anyone to have to go through what she did. I had an incredible leave package, and I am so grateful for it, because I know--especially in light of some of your stories--that it easily could have gone the other way (e.g., "I had to go right back to work, so you should too!"). Here's hoping that more supervisors, male and female, think this way in the future.

I think there's a big difference between being so totally flexible with work schedules that it negatively impacts the company and other employees, and building in enough flexibility so that a good employee can continue to contribute successfully to the organization. The first is being a pushover, or simply a bad leader; the second is being a strategic leader and thinker.

I am about to have my second child, and I also manage a large staff of people. I know how hard it is to hire, train, and keep good employees (yes, even in this stinky economy). I would much rather build in some flexbility for someone rather than have them leave (or simply begin to under-perform).

I think it's a leadership issue; pure and simple. The numbers are out there regarding the cost to our economy of educated, trained women (and men) leaving the work force because workplaces cannot provide workplace flexbility to deal with family issues. See "Motherhood Manifesto" for more info.

I had a (female) boss who very quietly arranged a four-day workweek with our VP after the birth of her child, but who REFUSED to support anyone else in creating alternative work schedules. Alternate schedules were not supported by our (extremely amateur) HR department. It seemed to me that this boss was terrifed that it would look like she'd "started something" (by setting a precedent), so she made sure no one could follow in her shoes and draw unwanted attention to her arrangements. It was disgusting.

Now I work for a company that has a fully documented, formal range of flexible work options, with the rules and processes clearly stated. Simply having that kind of institutional transparency around the policy is an enormous relief to me.

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