I was sitting at my desk when my colleague approached me. Her eyes were glassy and she looked a tiny bit defeated. She explained that she had just taken a call from her daughter’s day care. Her daughter wasn’t well, a high temp meant pick up time was now not later. Her husband was interstate for work and there was no one else. Hello working mothers.
It was entirely unnecessary, but she said “I’m sorry.”
Working mothers repeat after me. Stop apologising.
A quick work debrief and she was out the door.
This particular colleague has worked for us for nine years so I know her well. She’s been back from maternity leave for just over 12 months and so this daycare/sick child/leave work immediately scenario isn’t her first rodeo. We have assured her countless times that she doesn’t have to explain, justify, or worry. That this situation isn’t a burden on us. Her only concern should be her family.
But the guilt she feels is immense. Mothers guilt, employees guilt, call is what you will. I call it crazy.
I’m a working mother, I’ve been an employee and I’m now an employer. I think I am a better employer since I became a mother but please, no way do I think that only parents make good employers. I know categorically this to be bullshit but I know for me personally, I am kinder and more empathetic.
The situation with my colleague isn’t unique and working in recruitment means I’m privy to these kinds of stories and so I decided to write a list of things that I want working mothers (and fathers) to know. If you are a working, single parent then I’ve got nothing to tell you because already you are amazing and don’t need someone who has plenty of support to give you advice you didn’t ask for.
And also, you are already kicking my ass in parenting.
So working mothers, here’s what I want to tell you:
1. Your decision to work is yours alone and the reasons don’t matter. Make it, own it but don’t feel like you have to justify it. You do what you can, what you want, what you need to and that is all.
2. Mia Freedman coined the phrase ‘balance is bullshit” and the accuracy of this statement is almost comical. Harmony will exist in one area but will cause disparity in another and this will definitely happen at the crappiest, most inconvenient time. When you excel in one area it will come at a cost of another and finally we are getting the message that there is no glory in “having it all.” Motherhood and career balance can co-exist but they can also make you lose your shit.
3. I have written about this before but it is astonishing the number of working women I meet who suddenly feel that becoming a mother made them incompetent in the workplace. That maternity leave created a gap, not only on their resume but in their brain. Bollocks. Working mothers get shit done because they are working on limited time and less time means less time for bullshit.
4. If someone makes you feel guilty, inadequate or unreliable for having family responsibilities then call them out. The onus shouldn’t be on you to leave but consider finding a more family friendly organisation, someone who values you for the work you do and doesn’t consider little people a liability.
5. Flexibility in the workplace isn’t a gender issue and we need to talk more about men needing flexible arrangements at work. How many fathers get the “come pick up your sick child from day care” phone call before the mother? On a recent occasion when Charlie was sick MM stayed at home with him so I could go to work. Not because he is a superhero but because he is human and parenting is a shared arrangement and we take turns. As it happens, today it’s my turn.
It would be helpful and probably liberating if we could stop giving a shit about everyone’s expectations about work and parenting. Easy said, not so easy to do. But I do think society has unrealistic expectations on parenting responsibilities based on gender.
There I said it.
6. You may never be the first person in the office or the last person to leave. Who cares, what time you start work isn’t a mark of accomplishment. There is no crown, no prize, no trophy for the person who wins because it ISN’T A COMPETITION!
7. Don’t succumb to the pressure of thinking you have to disguise your dependency. A couple of weeks ago my colleague had to cancel some meetings (sick child) and instead of calling it a “clash in schedules” she told the truth. I know right? “My daughter is unwell and I need to reschedule our meeting”. Why the hell should we pretend otherwise?
8. Have the courage to ask for help without feeling like you are failing. Time and energy is finite and we all have a tipping point. Sometimes someone else will need to pick up the slack. Your partner, your husband, your friend, a grandparent, your neighbour. When all else fails, no child ever suffered from eating cereal for dinner.
Of course, this is a conversation that has to extend beyond mothers. Children are hugely dependent little creatures but dependency in general isn’t a women’s issue, it isn’t even a parenting issue. At some point, everyone, parent, non parent will have needs that require flexibility, it is just that right now my colleague’s two year old can’t just pop two panadols and take herself off to bed. Yet.
So working mothers know this. There is no right way, there is only your way. Manage the way you want and do it one moment at a time, however you can. And next time you feel unmoored and at sea, remember it will be better tomorrow.