13 March 2011

Undercover mums

I recently blogged about a difficult decision to knock back a pretty amazing job at a pretty amazing company. While there were generous offers of flexibility, I just couldn’t reconcile in my mind how I would handle a call from the CEO during an awkward domestic situation:

Phone rings
Me:  “Hello.”
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?


  1. Fabulous post - really makes you think. Personally it seems motherhood/working mums need a big PR boost. All of the talk is there - but not so much of the follow thru. Loving your writing style - keep em coming!!

  2. My husband's (female) therapist suggested he not take "too much time off" when he becomes a dad, in case his career suffers... and she knows that I am self-employed and get zero paid maternity leave, so his leave is extremely important to us as a family. I was surprised that even in this well-removed situation, work was prioritized over family.

  3. Hi Anon - thanks for sharing. We often forget that men also face this kind of pressure too. We have a long journey to turn this around. Talking about it is the first step...

  4. I have tweeted recently my distaste for the dilemma: breed, but don't hold up business. Howard's baby bonus was designed to encourage popoulation growth, but there was nothing along with it to facilitate a smoother return to the workforce, because even he was caught out admitting that mothers should be at home with their children!

    There is an enormous chasm generally speaking, between public service and private cultures/ expectations. Private sector doesn't like or even know what part time means. It was no co-incidence at my old full time gig that women over 30 were conspicuous by their absence. For these reasons I continue to be astounded that I was offered 2 days a week in my former field. The whole thing needs a serious attitude overhaul.

  5. LOVE this post. How sad it when Women have to hide the fact that they are mothers just to get on in the workplace.

    And is it the same for Fathers? Do they also hide that they have kids?

    Very interesting.

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  7. Great post. Whenever I read about this issue, it makes me so grateful I work for such a progressive company who has been recognised widely for its family friendly approach (for both men and women). I work in a senior role, from home and 4 days a week, for a boss who I can be upfront with. It doesn't have to be that hard. My employer is a global company with nearly 100,000 employees, so being family friendly doesn't have to be left to small "intimate" organisations!

    (sorry for deleting orginal post - typed too quickly and spelling was awful!)

  8. Wonderfully put and I really feel for you. At the mo I am not working so I don't have this kind of stress. It is a shame that often we have to choose between motherhood and a career at least for a short time.

  9. I've just found your blog and find your posts really enjoyable to read.

    Career woman and Mamma don't always fit too well together and it's hard to find the balance. Kudos to you to be able to do it. I'm giving up and following my husband to OS job so I can stay home and not worry about working anymore. I struggle working from home with them and most stuff gets done after 7pm when they go to bed. Where is my coffee / lunch break? At 10pm, at night, that's when *sigh* but we wouldn't change it one bit! x

  10. I have had many fantasies over the last 12 years since becoming a mother. Not fantasies of the pool man or the girls soccer coach or of having a weekly massage by Sven the hunk at the day spa. These fantasies involve lingering in my daughters classroom in the morning to see what she has been learning (not because the teacher is a hunk), making every class recital and award presentation. Picking my girls up from school everyday at 3pm instead of at 5.30pm from the sweaty smelly after school care. In these fantasies my daughters have freshly ironed uniforms and matching socks. I always look fresh and my hair is done (dry at least) instead of still dripping from the 2 second shower I had minutes before jumping in the car. Oh the gastronomical delights I would prepare during the day in anticipation of a relaxed 6pm dinner in my clean and organised house. I always seem to have on a fresh crisp white apron as well. I never wanted to fight my way to the top of my field at work. I only ever want what I can't have and that's more time to be a mother. I doubt that I would be a better Mum but I know I would enjoy being 'ME' much more.

    Love this post by the way. Hows the new family member going?

  11. After two children, a full on 50-80hr week "career", a brilliant car accident ~ it took six-eight months post op to actually learn to relax, stop, say no. I wish I'd learned 15-18years ago.

    I might not be a great Mum - but I think I am much better than I have been, calmer, flexible and eventually it will include housework, although kids don't care if the floor is mopped when there are warm muffins and games waiting for them at the end of the school day!

    Swapping Bigger, Better, Faster for Enough, Suitable and Calm ~ and learning to love it. Now, off to stew apples & pears - pffft to the mopping!


  12. Great post, needs to be said out loud. Fortunately I now have a very understanding boss and job as a school secretary, so finish at 3pm and no work during school holidays, which saves so much on vacation care - there's another whole can of worms working parents have to juggle! But I have done my time in horror jobs where at one point, I had picked up my sick 3 yr old and had to bring her back to work where she proceeded to throw up in the bin under my desk while my boss threw more demands at me - karma chewed that guy up and spat him out bankrupt.