Last week, I went to a breakfast organized by Plum Organics and Fatherly about parenting and working. There were a lot of very impressive people in the room— CEOs from various companies and reporters from noteworthy media outlets, all talking about how family life can be better supported by businesses.
As the hands rose and people spoke around the room, most of them seemed to be echoing the same thing. Parents need to lead by example, by doing things like going home for dinner, so they make it known that family is a priority for them. Only then will policy and working culture change.
I raised my hand. Oh, oh, oh, pick me!! PICK ME!!!
“So… when I got back from maternity leave, I made it a priority to be home at 6pm to relieve my nanny. And you know what happened? I got laid off.”
It’s great for company leaders to set an example by going home for dinner, but then those same leaders can’t penalize their workers for not being available around the clock. Most parents are not running companies, they are vulnerable.
Before I continue, let me just say that I think it’s awesome that Plum Organics is including dads as part of their Parenting Unfiltered campaign (which is about taking the filter off and sharing ALL the realities of parenting) and that fathers are becoming real advocates for family friendly work policies. With dads taking a stand, it ups the chances considerably that real change will occur. But at the same time, most working dads don’t face the same issues as working moms, because there is a very different perception of moms and dads in the workplace. My belief is that nobody is more vulnerable in the workplace than a new mom recently back at work, whose priorities are being questioned with every decision.
In my experience, here’s the difference between a woman going home to be with her family and a man going home to be with his family:
For men, it is assumed that work is the priority and they would have to prove themselves otherwise to raise any flags at the office.
For women, it is assumed that family is the priority and they would have to prove themselves otherwise to continue rising up the ranks.
Obviously, every industry and office is different, but judging from my own experience and many of the stories I’ve heard from people I know, this is a common experience.
What makes things even harder for working women starting a family is a little nine month period called “pregnancy.”
The second I announced my pregnancy at the office, people started wondering if I would return to work or not. Nobody ever thinks this about soon-to-be dads.
I had been steadily rising at my company for thirteen years when I got pregnant. Even so, I was still questioned by my co-workers when I told them I would return after my maternity leave. “You don’t know how you will feel once you have the baby,” I was told. Well, DUH. But I knew that my career was a huge part of my identity and a huge chunk of my shared income with my husband. I also knew that I had never in my whole life ever considered the possibility of being a stay-at-home mom, so I was adamant that I was coming back.
To make sure my bosses knew this to be true, I worked as hard as I could to ensure everything was business as usual. I worked late, traveled when asked, brainstormed big ideas, presented in meetings, etc. etc. Trying my best to ignore that I felt like absolute crap. I was exhausted and nauseous almost 100% of the time. At around 3pm, I wanted to curl up and die under my desk every day.
I know this isn’t the case for all pregnant women, but for me, while I was pregnant, I found it impossible to live up to the reputation I had worked years to build as a go-to creative for strategic work.
Besides being tired and nauseous, I had several complications while I was pregnant. At 27 weeks, I was rushed to the ICU for five days, effectively dropping the ball on a very important account. At 38 weeks, I said no to working on a new business pitch over the weekend because the stress had gotten too great and I knew it was unhealthy for my baby.
How could I prove that I would come back as strong as ever when I was already showing them I was incapable of taking on the same work I had before?
Leading up to my maternity leave, I was transitioned off my accounts and three months later, when I got back, I struggled to get put back on them. Part of this was because there was a shift in management.
There was a major round of lay-offs at my company about three months after I got back, of which I was one. A lot of people were let go so I can’t say I was included because they wanted to get rid of a mom with a new baby. But I can say, if I had never gotten pregnant, my position at the company would never have declined in value. I wouldn’t have had to meet my new bosses a few months after they had already established relationships with my peers. And it was a lot easier for them to let me go after they had already transitioned my job to other people in my absence.
So, I guess I’m saying that it’s great that moms and dads want paternal leave and family friendly work policies. But we have to remember that the issues parents face in the work force are a lot more complicated than getting home in time for dinner.
For me, the issue started with pregnancy, when I felt like I had to work over time to prove my value and dedication, while simultaneously feeling unable to perform at 100%.
What policy corrects for that?
The happy ending is that leaving my ad job (something I know I would not have done if they hadn’t kicked me out) ended up being a blessing in disguise. The freedom allowed me to start my blog which not only lets me set my own hours and be present for my kids, it has made me a more influential player in my old field than I would have been if I had stuck with the traditional agency trajectory.
It is not lost on me that a lot of advertising dollars are now going towards influencers instead of traditional marketing. And you can bet that a lot of my drive comes from my desire to prove that no one should have ever doubted my commitment to my career.
Obviously, I’m glad things turned out the way that they did, but I’m a unique case and I got pretty lucky. More broadly speaking, this is not a simply defined problem with an easy solution. My hope is that by talking about it honestly and by more people getting involved in the conversation (like fathers), that is a big step in the right direction.
What do you find most challenging about balancing work and family?
For more stories from Plum and Fatherly about how real parents are dealing with work life balance, click here.
This post was sponsored by Plum Organics but obviously my feelings on this subject are my own.