From my earliest recollection, I knew motherhood was inevitable for me. I loved playing house and had baby dolls well beyond the age of cuteness. At the same time, I envisioned myself having a successful career as a doctor, and a concert pianist playing Carnegie Hall, as well as a lawyer who’d follow in RBG’s footsteps and eventually become a Supreme Court Justice.
In other words, I felt I was destined to pursue a professional career and develop an identity as a mother when I grew up.
Fast forward a few decades and I find myself blessed with a daughter early in my professional career as a public health project coordinator. And when my first baby was just 18 months old, I became doubly blessed with twins! This was very unexpected, and many assumed quitting my career was an inescapable conclusion to having three kids in less than three years.
However, I never entertained the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mother. In fact, I remember feeling extremely annoyed that, when I was pregnant with the twins, no one ever approached my husband and said, “So you’re going to stay home after the babies are born?”
Nevertheless, for many mothers, staying home to take care of the kids is their fate, whether they want to or not. Reports on the effects of Covid-19 for working parents found more mothers than fathers quit their jobs during the pandemic in order to provide at-home childcare. Why? Well, one factor is the gender pay gap: The latest reports find this gap remains at about 18%. In other words, women make $0.82 to the dollar compared to men (though, depending on where you live, it could be as little as $0.65 to the dollar). So, if a family is in need of child care, naturally it makes financial sense for the higher earner to continue working while the lower earner (ahem, women) quit to stay home with the kids. To me, underpaying women is another way our society subtly pushes mothers to stay home with their kids.
Despite all the progress we’ve made, women still carry the majority of domestic responsibilities. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” Adichie rejects the debate about “doing it all” because it assumes “caregiving and domestic work are singularly female domains.” Instead, she writes: “Domestic work and caregiving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.”
This really struck a chord with me because a few months ago, I received two job offers in the same afternoon. Both jobs aligned with my professional passions while representing a significant next step in my career. I was certain one of the offers would work out, and the excitement I felt about shifting my career into the next gear was palpable. So, with two comparable job offers on the table, I looked at work/life balance and overall flexibility to help me determine which offer to accept.
Now, with the shift to remote schooling and work for so many people, Covid-19 has blown the top off of the traditional work/life balance box. And yet, many employers are reluctant to make a permanent shift in more flexible work schedules. In the case of my job offers, I asked each hiring manager about being able to get my kids on and off the school bus. I was not asking to work less, but different. I could log on to work earlier in the morning and return to work remotely in the afternoon.
One manager wasn’t completely against giving me flexibility, but resisted by saying, “If I give it to you, I will have to give it to everyone in the department.” Unsure of how to respond, I fell silent on the phone. I wish I said what I was thinking: “Then give it to everyone because they will be grateful!” I do not think that’s what she wanted to hear from me, though.
The next hiring manager caught me on the phone just as my kids were coming in the door after school. As I was walking to quieter space, she could hear them in the background and inquired about their ages, which seemed like a benign question. After I answered her — my oldest is 9 and the twins are 7 — she said, “Wow, you have your hands full!” With this comment, which I now recognize as a microaggression, I knew my negotiation for flexibility was dead in the water. Her words insinuated that, as a mother of three school-age children, how could I possibly handle this advancement of my career?
In the end, I turned down both offers.
I hope my walking away due to their inability to see the value of providing working mothers flexibility is a wake-up call. I am fortunate to be gainfully employed and work for an organization that is on board with providing flexibility. I am not willing to sacrifice being a present parent for my career, and I shouldn’t have to.
When I shared the news with a friend, she commended me for my decision, saying, “You can always advance your career, but you cannot redo your children’s childhood.” We also discussed the short-sightedness of these hiring managers — after all, I will not need to get my kids on and off the bus forever, and these hiring managers were not thinking about the long term.
Bringing all the pieces together —the gender wage gap, how mothers still carry the majority of domestic responsibilities, and how Covid has changed the workplace for parents of school-age children — I realize my goal is not equality in the workplace, but equity. Mothers are not starting on a level playing field with the average worker. We know it’s the moms who get the call when a kid pukes at school and needs to be picked up. Moms schedule after school activities and transportation to and from these activities. If a kid has a cold or fever, who takes the day off of work to nurse them back to health with soup, toast and cuddles on the couch?
Equity for working mothers is my rallying cry. Our work culture must accommodate mothers with flexibility so they can be there when their kids need them, and contribute to their profession and experience career advancement at the same time.
Success in providing equity for working mothers means addressing each employee’s needs individually, because flexible work arrangements must be tailored to each parent’s situation. I recognize this is hard to swallow for some hiring managers. It’s hard to change a work culture where a blanket statement like, “We don’t do that” is backed up by inadequate policies and antiquated belief systems of parental roles and responsibilities. Yet, I ask: “Why not?”. If the work gets done and everyone is happy, who gets hurt by providing flexibility to working mothers?
The pandemic has shown the world how we can work differently and still be successful. Now we know we can do better, so it’s time to actually do better.