The Four Guilts of the Apocalypse – Working Mother Guilt Part II

The second of my Four Guilts of the Apocalypse of the working mom is guilt in relation to work. I have worked since I was 14 and have been accused of being very driven and having a ridiculously high work ethic. I read with horror not too long ago that a recent trend with some American employers is to purposefully not hire or promote mothers for the simple fact that as mothers, so the argument goes, their work will suffer, their productivity will decrease, their loyalty will be divided and as a result, their value as employees, such as it was prior to childbirth, will now clearly be greatly diminished.

 Why these same conclusions about working mothers are not applied to working fathers is just another part of the mystery that is gender discrimination. I suppose that in a “traditional” family fathers were not expected to, nor did they participate or particularly value the mundane routines of family life. Here is my idea of the perfect (from an employer’s view) “traditional” (perhaps mythical) working father. Father would come home from a long and difficult day at work. He would regale the family with his heroic antics at work, his children and wife listening with rapt attention and awe. Father would then devour his meal, lovingly prepared by his wife, play with the kids for a moment or two, and then retire to the study to work some more while mother would get the kids ready for bed. He would greet another working day well rested, with a good breakfast in his belly, ready to work some more. Father was the star of his own movie; the king of his castle. His life had importance and his achievements had meaning. As my ex once explained to me (in the way one explains difficult concepts to a small child), “My time is more valuable, Julie, because I make more money.” He may have actually patted me on the head.

But there is a potential downside to that traditional/mythical father. When he is older, and his children are all grown, and his achievements, viewed with hindsight, are, perhaps, not so heroic, a sudden realization will hit (often categorized as a mid-life crisis). He has missed out. Perhaps he will realize, with a jolt, that his relationship with his now grown children is superficial at best, or, at worse, nonexistent; he may even recognize that he doesn’t actually know his children nor have a clear idea of who they are as human beings apart from what they have achieved. He may, as a result, experience intense grief and say to himself “What have I done?” But the beauty is, being a man, he can try again; he can marry again, have children again and embrace a second chance to be the kind of father he wished he had been the first time around, had he known then what he knows now.

Women, clearly, are not physiologically equipped to give it another go. If we miss out on it all the first time, that’s it. There is no second family, no second chance unless it is with another mother’s children, which comes with its own set of unique challenges. Women, as such, don’t have the luxury of ignoring their children to promote their careers. Mothers, when they work, juggle competing priorities. If one is going to trump, I can almost guarantee it will be their children. Does this mean that employers are right when they say that women’s work will suffer once they bear children, but not men’s? It is an interesting question.

I believe that today there are both women and men who are shrugging off the traditional script of the working parent. They are changing the way things have always been done. No longer are many women and men content to make a forced choice to sacrifice their families for their careers. When that invitation is offered to them, they calmly but defiantly turn it down. Work-life balance is not a new catch phrase, it is a reality. Without it, I believe, we all suffer. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as the stresses of balancing life and work have increased, so have the rates of mental illness, marital breakdown, etc.

I, interestingly enough, have recently entered a profession in which work-life balance is an inside joke. When I attended a panel discussion on how to be successful at interviews the panelists all agreed that addressing work-life balance in an interview was professional suicide. In one of my classes on employment, in which work-life balance was discussed, a female classmate pronounced definitively that “Women just can’t have it all. They can’t be a good mother and a good employee. It’s not possible.” To be fair, when I decided to take the leap of faith and enter this rather challenging profession, it was partly because I had been informed that I wouldn’t be able to have children, so it made sense to enter a profession that had a reputation for being all consuming. It’s not like I had anything better to do. 

Then Maya, my little miracle came along. Oops! What had I gotten myself into? Perhaps it is the fact that I entered a new career with another one under my belt, or perhaps it is my history of irreverence, but I decided that when I looked for a job I would not heed the panelist’s advice, I would break those rules. I would not take any job that came my way, but I would search until I found a place of employment that matched my own values, one that recognized that promoting work-life balance actually produced better, happier and more productive employees.

When it came time to look for a job, I was lucky to have several interviews. Going into these interviews I felt a bit like a woman dating in her 30’s who wants to settle down and have a family. She can’t any longer biologically afford to date someone for a couple of years here and there; she needs to know, within the first five minutes of meeting a prospective mate if they are on the right page. Men who are not are given short shrift. In each interview, therefore, I asked the forbidden question. I asked how their organization supported working mothers. I expected a standard formulated response. What surprised me was that the question was so unexpected that they didn’t even have a standard reply. And because they hadn’t a standard reply, I actually received some honest answers, most of which sounded a bit like this: “That’s a good question. We haven’t quite figured that one out yet.” Yikes.

The one place that had an excellent answer to that question was the place I chose (luckily they chose me too!). It is not as prestigious or glamorous as some of the other places I considered, but from what I can tell thus far, it is real. The people are authentic. They work hard and do excellent work, but not at the expense of their families. I had heard that when they started many people predicted that they would fail; that there was no way an organization in this profession could succeed if work was actually balanced with life. What I love about my new employer is that they have proven the establishment wrong. They stuck to their vision and instead of failing, they have been quite successful; a fact that is ultimately threatening to the established order because it is evidence that promoting work-life balance does not equal failure, does not create less productive employees.

Instead of being filled with dread at how I will manage work with a family, I am excited. I can see myself having an amazing and fulfilling career there. The opportunities for personal growth in my career are both expansive and exciting. But, unlike many of the organizations I visited, I also envision a future for me with my family, a future in which I grow old being connected with my daughter and my husband, and knowing that with the right support from my family and my workplace, I really can have it all, or at least mostly all, without sacrificing either of them. And if I can have it all, so can Maya. 


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