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A few years ago I found myself at the doctor’s office twice in two weeks.
I wasn’t sick.
My kids were.
First, one caught a virus and just as he was starting to feel better – poof – he gave the same germs to his brother.
“If I know what’s wrong, can’t I just give one kid the others’ medicine and send them both to school?” I asked my husband. “I’m soooo behind at work.”
“Mother of the year,” he deadpanned.
Still…as I sat in the pediatrician’s office, I couldn’t help but feel profound gratitude that my boss was so generous about these things.
After all, I work for myself.
I doubt I could say the same if had my old corporate marketing job. In fact, as my son entertained himself with Scooby Doo on the iPad, I was thinking about all the proposals I was responsible for in that position.
Proposals the firm counted on winning each year.
Proposals that absolutely had to be delivered by the deadline (sometimes in person) or our team was disqualified.
I’m not proud of this, but the angriest I have ever been in recent memory was the day I had one of those all-important proposals due and our sitter sent me an early-morning text that read:
Sorry. Can’t make it today. I’m sick.
Less than a minute later I found myself hunched over the kitchen counter, red-faced and panting like a dog. All I could think about was the importance – not to mention the visibility – of the proposal I was working on…and how the ball was very squarely in my court.
Thus, with no other sitter choice and a husband out of town, I worked on it from home, completely ignoring my kids who were toddlers at the time.
“Playing with knives, dear?”
“Drinking laundry detergent, sweetie?”
“That’s okay, mommy just needs to wrap up a few things and I’ll be right there.”
Mother of the Year indeed.
In her celebrated Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter famously says “women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed.”
Personally, while I found myself in agreement with most of Slaughter’s article, I do worry that it sends the wrong message overall. Particularly when I begin to get emails like this from an attorney who is also a new mother:
“I almost never bring up my child because I’m worried that colleagues and clients will think of me differently…I think part of my insecurity is that I had kids much younger than most women in my office (age 30), so I’m worried people are going to think my career isn’t as important as it is to the women who wait to have kids and put their career first….I have a feeling my colleagues didn’t think I was going to come back because the last girl in my shoes didn’t.”
At first, I was a little surprised this woman considered 30 “young” to have kids but, then again, she went on to say that one of the few female partners at her firm had her first child at 42 and the second at 47.
What didn’t surprise me, however, was the noticeable shift she felt in the way colleagues treated her now that she was a “mom.” Because when a valuable employee goes on maternity leave, it’s been my experience that the management team does hold its breath, waiting to see: a.) IF she comes back, and b.) whether she can produce at the same level as before.
Personally, I didn’t talk much about my pregnancies or newborns either for the same reason. Indeed, I remember being very late into my third trimester with my second son and he was putting so much pressure on my back that I was talking to a client on the phone with one hand while trying to physically move him into a new position with the other. I never told the client how much pain I was in, but after I hung up I immediately called my husband and we went straight to the hospital.
I was back at work the next day.
Ridiculous? Maybe not.
For example, the New York Times ran an article about researchers from Cornell who created fake résumés which were identical in all areas except one: parental status. When they asked college students to evaluate the resumes for employment or promotions, mothers were much less likely to be hired and – if hired – they were offered an average of $11,000 less in starting salary. As if that weren’t bad enough, the researchers also submitted résumés in response to more than 600 actual job advertisements – and “childless” candidates received twice as many callbacks.
So, yes, prejudice exists in the workforce but – even so – I really don’t think the message we should be sending career moms is “sorry, you can’t have both” but rather “know that it will be hard, but do your best.” We should tell them there will be times when your kid is sick…the sitter is sick…the proposal is due…and some days you can count on everything to completely fall apart.
You may find yourself (as I have) sitting on a cold bathroom floor in your best business suit latched to a breast pump and praying no one walks in.
You will be up all night.
You will smell like vomit sometimes and feel pulled in a million directions all the time.
You will feel guilty when you’re at home and guilty when you’re at work.
You will find entertaining your own children painfully boring.
You will go against your promise and serve chicken nuggets for the sixth night in a row because it’s easy.
You will miss the deadline – again – and say things you don’t mean because you’re tired.
You will ugly cry.
And while you may not be mother of the year either, that still doesn’t make motherhood and career an either / or choice.
So go ahead and drop the ball.
Just be sure to pick it up again because we need you.