LAUREN SMITH BRODY
WORKING and being a mother isn’t a choice, it is a reality for many women.
“You can do it all, just not all at the same time,” so goes the saying. And yet, I’ve interviewed hundreds of mothers who work outside the home, each of whom can tell you that the things on that list of “it all” don’t like to wait in line. As it turns out, children need to eat daily, but deliverables at work need to be, well, delivered. If you’re lucky, you enjoy your work enough to feel the pull of wanting to be both at work and at home. Here’s how to stop the guilt, negotiate for flexibility and find equality at work and home.
- Ditch the guilt
In her book Forget Having It All, author Amy Westervelt sums up the working mother dilemma: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.” That’s a recipe for mommy guilt – a term I’d like to outlaw for its implication that women are wrong to contribute to the economy and the human race at the same time. For me, context helps.
- Feeling overwhelmed is normal
Six months paid time off – at minimum – is what’s best for both the baby and the mother, research suggested. Yet most workplaces don’t offer this much leave. As a result, most moms who work outside the home are back on the job before they’re emotionally or physically ready. If that describes you, and you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that it is natural and it is not your fault.
- Motherhood is a strength at work
Studies suggest that women are great for a company’s financial performance. But if those women are mothers, it is safe to say they’re probably more productive at work, too. Hundreds of mothers report being more efficient, better at balancing tasks and better at saying “no” once they have children. I prefer to turn that last idea around: Moms give more committed “yeses”.
- Working makes you a good mother
Research that Kathleen McGinn, a Harvard economist, conducted in 2015 found that the daughters of mothers who worked outside the home grew up to be higher achieving and that their sons were more likely to share in household chores. Last year, McGinn built on those results and concluded that those children end up just as happy as they would have been had their mothers been home with them.
- Avoid the ‘motherhood penalty’
It is a term coined by social scientists to describe the disadvantages women with children face at work relative to their childless peers, including being offered lower starting salaries and being perceived, erroneously, as less competent. There’s no one cure-all, but here are a few starting points:
- Negotiate for flexibility
Research has found that workplace flexibility makes for happier and more satisfied employees – more productive ones, too – and no one needs flexibility more than mothers. If you need to negotiate for a change in your hours, location or duties, first look into what benefits are available to you already or any precedent that’s been set by colleagues or competitors. Propose a plan of how the flexibility you want will make you better at your job, helping your employer, not just you. Suggest a trial period.
- Maintain three months of ‘yes, I can’ savings
- Find balance
This torturous goal is best assessed with a long lens. There will be days that are taken by a trip to the emergency room with a sick child or weeks eaten up by a new boss or a big deadline. But if you pause and look back just a few times a year, chances are that you’re more balanced than you think. If you’re not, you can feel good about making more deliberate improvements. As for the never-ending daily to-dos, try the following:
- Use your commute
In a survey, 732 new mothers rated their commutes on a scale from 1 to 10 and showed that they were 50 percent more stressful after having children. That’s not because of change in traffic patterns, it is because they were stressed by all that wasted time. The solution? Use those precious minutes for work or for yourself. Schedule a call while driving or carpool with a friend or colleague.
- Build equality at home
If you are lucky enough to have a co-parent in this whole endeavour, realise that this person is your most useful resource and you are theirs. Unfortunately, in heterosexual relationships, women still tend to take on most of the household chores (even when they’re breadwinners). Mothers tend to keep the to-do lists and take on the so-called “emotional labour” (the unseen work that goes into things like making sure your child’s teacher feels appreciated).
Talk to your partner about this imbalance. Fill a poster board with both of your to-dos and take turns claiming things and crossing them out.
- Be deliberate with ‘yeses’
There are only so many hours in a day, so you’re going to have to gauge what’s really worth saying yes to, from after-hours networking to volunteering at school. Prioritising your days is as much about making room for career growth as it is about getting home at night.
- Work for policy change
Most importantly, use whatever privilege and power you’ve got to advocate for others. I’ve seen women band together with a PowerPoint pitch for better paid leave. One lesbian woman updated her workplace benefits for all same-sex parents. If you don’t have the added burden of being an underrepresented minority, if you have C-status, if you have some special sauce of brains, thick skin and no need for sleep, use those advantages in service of your colleagues. Nothing is more maternal than that.
According to Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, a mother and author of The 30-Day Money Cleanse, when women have saved three months of income, “they are more comfortable taking risks at work, like asking for high-profile projects and stretch assignments”. These are the kinds of things that employers and colleagues often, incorrectly, assume mothers won’t want to, or can’t, take on and they tend to have a big financial pay-off.
This article was first published in The New York Times.