Working moms need a new F-word: flexibility
Last updated July 14, 2022
When I went back to work as a first-time mom, and thus a first-time “working mom,” I wasn’t sure whether to wear my new moniker like a badge or sweep it under the rug. Rather than return from maternity leave to a familiar job, I joined a new company, in a new role. So I wondered: Was it wise to draw attention to the reason I needed to leave 30 minutes early every day? Could I pretend, over the next few months, that I wasn’t plagued by every illness from every child at my daughter’s daycare?
Suddenly there were at least double the reasons I might be absent or late, and I knew the stories about meltdowns over a sock or low-grade fevers would soon wear thin. I had the support of my manager, who is also a mother, but I was worried about my other, mostly childless colleagues. I wanted them to like me, and also to be assured that I’d work as many hours as they did, even if that was later, at night. I soon realized that I’d have to work harder at relationship-building during the day, over lunch, which was often my only chance to recharge, because it was difficult to manage happy hours and other social events. Looking back, I was often frantic, exhausted, insecure, and guilt-ridden. But I was also really happy about my new job and excited to be there.
Most moms are “working moms”
My experience is not uncommon. As Virginia, a product marketing manager, shared with me, “Once I prioritize my son and my career, and sprinkle in basic life requirements like errands, cooking, home upkeep, there’s little to no time left for myself and my friendships. It’s also hard to find time to connect on an emotional level with my spouse. I adore being a mother, but could not have predicted how isolating it can be.”
“Once I prioritize my son and my career, and sprinkle in basic life requirements like errands, cooking, home upkeep, there’s little to no time left for myself and my friendships. It’s also hard to find time to connect on an emotional level with my spouse. I adore being a mother, but could not have predicted how isolating it can be.”
Working moms shouldn’t feel so isolated—as many as 70 percent of mothers in the U.S. with children under age 18 are “working moms.” What’s more, the U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2017 that, of these, over 75 percent of working mothers work full-time. That makes for a lot of women juggling very full work and home lives.
As a society, two-income families have become the norm, and there are more single parents today than in decades past. What’s more, as more women are college educated and working in fields traditionally dominated by men, their contribution to the household income is oftentimes sizable. According to The Center for American Progress, 42 percent of working women were the sole or primary breadwinners in 2015 (compared to only 11 percent in 1960). Another 22 percent were considered “co-breadwinners,” contributing significantly or equally to the overall family earnings.
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At the same time, even if we see and understand the need for women in the workplace—as valuable talent, as support for her family, and to fulfill her own passion—there remains a widespread perception that moms are needed more at home. Pew Research Center found that “75 percent of Americans feel that having a mother who does not work full-time would be best for her children when they’re young.” A Gallup poll also found that many moms, and future moms, want to spend more time at home with their kids. So it’s a troubling dynamic—this need, desire, and societal pressure to be in two places at once.
Even if we see and understand the need for women in the workplace—as valuable talent, as support for her family, and to fulfill her own passion—there remains a widespread perception that moms are needed more at home.
Women have adapted, but workplaces haven’t… yet
If the modern mom is a working mom, she’s working in a system that hasn’t fully modernized to support her. She’s also navigating a social structure that puts ever-increasing pressure on her to be exemplary (and Pinterest-worthy), and is held to the same or higher standards as her peers and male counterparts—even though women are judged differently than men in the workplace, and especially when it comes to parenting.
Consider anything placed under too much pressure—a balloon filled with too much air. Eventually, that balloon is going to pop.
It appears that there’s a sea change coming, and it can go one of several ways. Either businesses adapt, or women will opt out. They already are—despite gains in gender parity, the number of women exiting the traditional workforce as they face motherhood is growing. Beginning in 2012, the number of stay-at-home moms in the U.S. began to rise after 30 years of decline, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why. For one thing, the United States is the only “advanced economy” in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave—and for many women in lower income jobs, there’s no paid sick leave and mothers must return to work within two weeks of having a baby. For another, there’s also no regulation on childcare, which can be expensive, hard to find, and of crazy-varying quality.
The good news is that tech companies have been among the first to seed change. Companies like Facebook and Google offer paid leave for both moms and dads, as well as a stipend bonus. Netflix went a step further and introduced unlimited parental leave. Other large companies, including Google, but also Cisco and Genentech, offer or partner with daycares to provide onsite childcare to make their employees’ lives a little bit easier.
My workplace has changed, too. Zendesk offers four months paid leave for both mothers and fathers, as well as work from home days, mothers’ rooms for nursing, and unlimited paid time off that doesn’t discriminate between vacation days and kids’ doctor appointments. Even so, progressive tech companies are the exception, not the norm.
What employers can do:
Offer better paid leave policies. When it comes to maternity leave, as well as paid time off, more is more. This is what will keep your business competitive on the recruitment front, and will allow women more time, and peace of mind, to care of things at home so that they can be more present when they are at work.
Soften the integration back into the workplace. Parenthood is a major life adjustment and returning after a maternity leave is jarring. It helps to designate a comfortable space where women can privately pump, and to allow them the time to do so. Managing a pumping schedule is a challenge all on its own. At many tech companies, a softer integration also allows for a phased period of more frequent work from home days so that the transition on both child and mother is not so abrupt. Even something small, like setting up a Slack channel for new moms, or a recurring lunch for new parents to connect, helps.
Offer “Returnships”. Some women don’t return to the workplace after taking time off with kids because no one will hire them. On the “Innovating the Working Mom” panel at SXSW earlier this year, Elaine Davidson, CEO of Beacon Lane Consulting said if companies want to avoid talent wars, they “need to be more open-minded about what talent might look like.” Returnships offer moms (often with tremendous leadership, volunteering, and professional experience) the opportunity to re-enter.
Be thoughtful. Unless your workplace culture is familiar with parenthood, it can be hard to remember that there are specific, unalterable windows of time that kids have to be dropped off and picked up from daycare and school. When meetings creep outside the 9-5, you’re sending a parent or two into a tailspin. You’re also actively taking family time away. As Cristina, a director of field marketing, shared, “Young kids are only awake for a 12-hour window, and staying in the office until 6:00 pm for a meeting means potentially not seeing my kid for the entire day.” Instituting a family-friendly policy for meeting hours, or mixing up happy hours with team lunches or breakfasts is a great way to include everyone.
Be flexible. See all of the above.
Embrace the F-word
The easiest and first thing we can all do is to start embracing a new F-word: flexible. Where and how can we allow more flexibility in our workplaces? How can we create cultures of trust?
It’s easy enough in tech, where most work happens on a laptop, but this is more challenging in other fields where most of the work really needs to be in person. Take Jaime, a stenographer for a district attorney. She has two young sons, one just graduated from kindergarten and another in daycare. “My biggest issue is flexibility,” she shared. Sometimes she’s able to go weeks, even months, without needing any special accommodation, but then, unexpectedly, will need to return phone calls during business hours, or make doctor visits, or meet with teachers.
“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to worry about coverage or sick leave, but in reality I do,” she said. “I worry about spending too much time away from my desk and my coworkers resenting me. I also worry about missing the trivial, but still significant, things like a field day or field trip at my son’s school because I have to save the time for more important things.” Jaime doesn’t have the ability to work from home, which would help. Instead, she juggles as many appointments as possible outside of her work schedule.
Similarly, Courtney runs payroll and HR for a construction company. “I think there is nothing better than flexibility,” she said. She has two young girls and is able to work two days at home each week, and has the flexibility to come and go and even to bring her daughters into the office on days they’re sick. “I feel like I tend to be more productive when I’m in the office those three days than if I was there 8:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Friday,” she said.
It’s a sentiment I heard echoed by many mothers, who learn to be uber-efficient, laser-focused (even when tired), and fully present, whether at work or at home. They don’t sweat the small stuff and instead focus in on “the glass balls”—the ones that will break if they drop.
They [working mothers] don’t sweat the small stuff and instead focus in on “the glass balls”—the ones that will break if they drop.
Millennial moms and the future of work
Companies in every industry should be hearing alarm bells and the sound of breaking glass balls. With women holding just over 50 percent of jobs in the U.S., the workforce—and the workplace—will feel the impact if young women decide that traditional working environments aren’t worth it.
Over the next ten years, Millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce, and many of them are already parents. According to BabyCenter’s 2015 State of Modern Motherhood Report, Millennials account for 83 percent of new moms in the U.S. As a generation, they’ve made known their desire for flexibility and work-life balance, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be willing to bend until they break.
As part of the working mother’s panel at SXSW, Donna Norton, Executive VP and Chief Advancement & Strategy Officer at MomsRising.org, urged women across all industries to raise their voices and say, “This is not working.”
“Women want to work and to take care of their children,” said Davidson. “Flexibility is so important. It’s time for us to keep pushing that agenda.” Davidson also pointed out that gig work is on the rise, which gives Millennials a new, third avenue: that of the “work-at-home” mom.
By 2020, Intuit forecasts that a full 40 percent of the workforce will be in the on-demand economy. Increasingly, women can take their skill sets and hire themselves out for temporary or project-based work, building an online portfolio and a personal brand—all from the comfort of their home. This allows women to stay relevant and to flex their professional muscles without having to find a “job” in the traditional sense.
Even so, the gig economy doesn’t necessarily translate into stable income—at least, not without a hustle. It also doesn’t guarantee a woman momentum in her career or attainment of leadership goals. “Women are often forced out of the leadership track,” explained Anna Auerbach, Cofounder, and Co-CEO of Werk, a company and platform dedicated to connecting women with flexible, career-building jobs. “Flexible leadership track work is what needs to be the next step.”
We can all do (so much) more
In reality, there are many next steps. Public policy must change, but in lieu of widespread systemic changes, there’s also a lot more we can do at the workplace-level—starting by being honest.
“We need to share our stories and break the silence about our situations,” said Davidson. For starters, we shouldn’t hide the photos of our kids. Many of us have kids, and it’s a great way to know who else among us might also be wrestling a tiny person each morning, or else managing the mood swings of a tween. Female leaders, too, should be vocal about how they make it all work.
How working moms can help, and help each other:
Elevate the conversation. Women need to continue to advocate for other women, which means we need more women in leadership positions and in public office. Real talk about challenges helps to raise awareness and combat isolation.
Negotiate your needs. If you’re worried that you won’t get a job or promotion because you have kids, you may not be selling yourself well. Work on confidently negotiating your needs, whether that’s leaving early, working from home, revising the timeline on expected career progression, or negotiating down your hours and pay to something less than full-time. Be real about what it is that will make the difference.
Ask for help. You don’t have to go it alone. Take advantage of the resources available within your company, join an online or in-person parenting group, and build a network of other working moms. Sometimes you need like-minded women to vent to, and sometimes you need a proxy to attend a meeting that you just can’t make.
Push for legislation. The battle for better maternity and paid family leave policies has to be fought on several fronts; societal problems can only be solved by societal actions.
Build the business case. At the end of the day, losing top talent impacts the bottom line. So, if you’re pitching your company for better policies, tell a business story and assign a dollar value. What’s the loss in productivity and revenue when a woman decides not to return from maternity leave? If you struggle to retain a female workforce, how does that affect the company’s growth strategy?
Moms, give yourselves a high-five—and a break
Many parents end up overcompensating, precisely because they’re worried about working less. That’s not ideal, so we all have to get comfortable with some give and take. Some days, “you either kill it as an employee or you kill it as a mom. It’s rare to feel a balanced day when you’re doing both,” shared Roshni, a director of customer success. Granted, that’s not a great feeling. Neither is knowing that you’ve left things unfinished. In the end, though, it all comes out in the wash (even if the laundry is one of the things you aren’t doing).
Take it from Wendy, a field marketing associate who participated in a returnship program. She shared that part of finding balance is relaxing on the homefront, too. “With three teenagers, it’s really important that we all sit down to a nice dinner a few nights a week. Making time for that yields more happiness than getting another load of laundry done.”
As for me, there’s no denying that motherhood is now a massive part of my identity. It’s still hard, but with the support I have in the workplace, it’s definitely less hard. These days, I talk about my daughter, I leave when I need to, and I make sure as hell I get my work done. The flexibility allows me to choose how I want to arrange my family, and my work, without having to choose one over the other. And that might be the very definition of “having it all.”
We don’t believe in being one-sided, so you can find a new father’s point of view in “There’s a fresh dad in the cubicle near you.”