Working Motherhood

14 Nov

Today I was chatting with a friend who mentioned an interesting workplace concern:

Mothers who do not pull their own weight due to “kid commitments” — doctor appointments, school drop-offs, parent-teacher conferences and the list goes on.

In all honesty, I have very little patience with this rigmarole.

Walk in the shoes of a working mother or father for just a day. It ain’t pretty.

The juggling act of a parent with a professional position requiring anything beyond 40 hours a week of work is backbreaking. I’m not saying that those without kids don’t work hard. What I am saying is that those with children manage a high-wire act difficult to imagine unless personally experienced.

Spare time is nonexistent. With what little time there is in that grey margin of time just before and after work, the trade-offs are make-or-break:

  • Please a client by going the extra mile one evening by writing another op-ed or go to the ballet recital.
  • Make the boss happy by attending a client reception or be at home for dinner with the family.
  • Delegate to junior associates or do the work myself while my son is going to sleep.
  • Work on the weekend to catch up on the email and “thinking work” that I’m too busy to complete during workdays filled with meetings, or let it go and spend time just being a mom.
  • Have a tough conversation with my boss with the phone on mute while I am transporting my extremely loud and arguing kids to X evening activity, or set the limit that we’ll need to talk about work tomorrow.

Kids remember when we are not present. And so do coworkers, bosses and clients.

Being a parent and a professional are both serious business. Frankly, the only way I’ve found to do both is to do quite a bit of work while my children are sleeping or otherwise occupied on the weekend.

I often have the sense that I’m not paying enough attention to one or the other, but the simple fact is that I devote well beyond “full-time” to each. I know that most parents feel this way, too. Not all workplaces are sympathetic to working parents’ challenges. Children interrupt us at work, just as work interrupts us at home. It goes both ways. With the encroachment of technology and the stressors of the “new economy” — constantly feeling like we have to prove ourselves in order to stay ahead of the next layoff at work — it is often not fun.

For the most part, the policies of my employers have been open-minded to the situation of the working parent. I’ve been lucky in that regard.

What’s surprising is the attitudes of co-workers. Probably the most frustrating thing for me during my 14 years as a working mother has been the judgment of colleagues.

After my son was born, I took off nearly three months to be with him. Some thought this was too much time for someone in a leadership position like mine and let me know how they felt, but I don’t regret it to this day. You cannot get that time back.

Although I started working half-days before I returned, I still was not back at work full-time until my son was 12 weeks old. And when I was back, I took two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch every day. The breaks were to pump breast-milk that my husband could feed him while I was at work, and the half-hour-long lunch was so that I could be with him to feed him in person. I did this every day for about six months. And I worked more than 8 hours each day — usually something like 50-55 hours a week. Both the nursing and the work were priorities, and I did them both.

Because I took the breaks and the lunch on a regular schedule, often they interfered with other meetings that occurred at work. And that got noticed. I felt it. And there were one or two female colleagues without children who seemed resentful. It was stressful. I often felt rushed, running out of meetings to do the pumping or meet my husband in the parking lot with my son, so that we could sit in the car together for 30 minutes or so to nurse.

A few years ago, I was leaving work to attend a Girl Scout outing with my daughter — time that I made up after-hours. The following day, another working mom colleague shared with me that I needed to be careful about taking this time. She was subtly warning me that doing this was not generally acceptable at our workplace. I thanked her for the heads-up and took note. I also took note that people who left early to play golf did not seem to experience the same judgment.

Now that my kids are older, it’s not as stressful, but I often need to leave work right on time, or I arrive 15 minutes after our “official” start time. And I wonder whether it makes a difference or not that I am working well over full-time to make up the difference in the evenings. People can and do make uninformed judgments based upon what they see in the workplace.

The honest truth is that flex-time is over-rated. Because some of the time unfolds outside the regular work day, it’s easy to pass judgment that the time is “less than,” and thus the work itself and the commitment of the working parent are inferior.

I have no easy answer to this dilemma, for myself or for any other working parent. My own choice as a supervisor has been to support high-quality work and the people that do it, whenever and wherever they are able to complete that work.

There’s more to be learned here. I’m sure that I’ll get more clarity on this over time, but for now it’s just hard. It may sound like the easy way out, but I’m glad that I’m now counting down from nine years to the end of my time as a working mother of school-age kids.

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7 Responses to “Working Motherhood”

  1. Anne November 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    As you endure the dirty looks and evil comments of the “work wonders” who are childless, think ahead ten or twenty or thirty years. The job you work so hard for now will be long gone, maybe even the company you work for. Most of the people will have moved on. Some will have moved upward, for a while, some will just have moved on. Most won’t be part of your future life. But your children and your family are so intertwined with your entire life. When you are sitting in an old-folks home, will your former co-workers come visit? When someone needs to clean your aging body, I am pretty sure that they won’t be there. So, whether you think you are making a choice out of love for your children or as a pragmatic investment for your future, most of the time you can feel good about going to the ballet recital, the school conference, the special dinner, or even just helping with the math homework. When the catty co-work makes a snide comment, envision her at 80, sitting in a grey corridor all alone…while you are at your grandchildren’s birthday parties!

    • toknowbetter November 14, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

      Thanks, Anne. A very good perspective here. It does help to take the long view. And also to remember that I was clueless prior to having kids.

  2. christie November 14, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    i have to say, i l-o-v-e flextime… it’s made a huge difference for me in the white collar setting versus the set hours in more of a blue collar field.

    i hear what you’re typing about people not being pleased with the 15 minute/half hour lunches for pumping/feeding… i have to say….. and as i’m typing this, child # 2 just broke the shower handle, must tend to #3 who is wearing a cinderella dress and playing with a fire truck.

    know any plumbers? ;o)

    • toknowbetter November 14, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

      You crack me up! I appreciate flextime, but it has a nasty tendency to flex its muscle well into my evenings and weekends. Just need to set more limits for myself.

  3. Caroline November 15, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    “Children interrupt us at work, just as work interrupts us at home. It goes both ways.”

    Great point.

  4. dawn November 17, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    Kimmb, this post made me want to introduce you to my friend Karen who writes some of my most favorite stuff on working moms: http://momartfully.typepad.com/

    • toknowbetter November 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

      Adding her to my blogroll, Dawn. Thanks for sending to me. I’ll continue to read her! Liked the most recent post very much.

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