Amazing CEO: “Hello. This is amazing CEO of amazing company here. I need you to do something that just can’t wait.”
Me: “Oh, sorry amazing CEO. I can’t help just now because my daughter has puked and my underweight son won’t eat his burnt fish fingers.”
Amazing CEO: “Well, can’t you get someone else to clean up the puke and force-feed your son?”
Me: “Um, sorry amazing CEO, but you did promise me flexibility because I don’t want to outsource my one chance at being a mum.”
Amazing CEO: “Oh. Ok. Well, if you can’t help me, I’ll ask single hot chick who is dying for your job to help me instead. Bye.”
Me: “Bye…” sobbing
From my experience CEOs don’t have time to wait for children to be bathed or bedtime stories to be told. The more I mull this over in my mind, the more it sinks in just how hard it is to be a ‘working mum at the top’. So hard, some professional women feel compelled to hide the fact they are mothers.
I had my first taste of this when I returned to work full-time only six months after Boy-Who-Asks-Questions was born. It was hideously hard going back so early, but circumstances - a mixture of career and mortgage pressures - meant I felt there was no choice.
After a week back behind the desk I received one of ‘those’ calls from the crèche. Boy-Who-Asks-Questions was running a temperature. With my ‘nervous-new-mum’ heart in my mouth I grabbed my bag to run out the door, blurting to my colleagues I had to go because my little boy was sick.
The next day a female colleague inquired about my son and then quietly offered me this advice: “Next time, don’t say your son is sick. Trust me. Never tell anyone you have to leave because of your kids. Make something up – you, your partner, your dog - but never ever say it’s your kids.”
Not long after I received this advice, I ranted about it at a dinner party. Expecting a chorus of ‘shame, shame, shame’ from the women at the table, I received only blank looks…even a smirk. The reaction knocked me and I started to question myself (my favourite past-time).
Another piece of confusing workplace advice came from a male executive who suggested ambitious women shouldn’t try to be ‘one of the boys’ and instead be proud of their femininity. This was the same person who dropped me from a project because I couldn’t commit to daily progress meetings at the rather un-motherly hour of 5pm. Perhaps maternal mothering wasn’t the kind of femininity he meant.
I’ve also heard horror stories (on the grapevine, picked up at the local park where us once-brilliant career women congregate with kids, coffees and dark circled eyes) of women who have concealed their motherhood entirely, leading a double life: corporate dominatrix by day, nurturer by night.
And don’t get me wrong; similar pressures also apply for men. A recent article by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Jessica Irvine (@jess_irvine) suggests that in Australia, men who choose to take time off work to contribute to raising children could be seen as “soft” or less serious about their career.
‘Healthy parenting’ (or lack of) is often cited as critical for a healthy society. If we are to progress this notion we need to question why so many of us are fearful to be open about the demands of parenthood.
So, where is this fear coming from? Is it because the rules of business have been historically shaped by men, leaving no room for maternal ‘softness’? Is it because we don’t want to piss off our childless colleagues as we run out the door to do the school run? Or is it simply our own insecurities?