I had a conversation with a coworker today about my struggles as a working mom. Full disclosure – I opened the door to this topic, so I don’t feel he was prying. But even as he brainstormed with me ways to alleviate some of the stress I feel, I could sense the conversation turning toward one question… Is it possible for you to become a stay-at-home mom? It was brought up in a very subtle way, never asking this question outright, but it was clear nonetheless. This coworker spoke of how his previously employed wife had decided to stay home (they have three children under the age of 8). He mentioned how I should have a talk with my spouse about what would work for us financially. He brought up the cost of daycare, and how other friends of his had decided it wasn’t worth it. He even presented the dreaded ‘they are only young once’ line that, on a bad day, can bring me to tears.
This whole encounter got me to thinking about the fact that some people thinks it is simply a matter of coming around to the inevitable truth, that after a certain point (or certain number of kids), it just makes sense for one spouse, usually the wife, to stay home. But was my mere admission that this whole working parent thing is tough some sort of white flag in and of itself? Did my coworker feel that I was screaming out for help, from the sheer overwhelm that comes with being a parent to little ones while working?
I would argue that this is exactly why working mothers don’t want to say “Hey, this is tough” – for fear of being boxed into traditional domestic roles. No one wants to admit they are struggling, especially not those of us who tend to be overachievers or who find it hard to ask for help. And no one wants to be told they can’t hack it. So many of us suffer silently. We don’t come into that 9 a.m. meeting saying how rough our evening was due to both kids being up in the middle of the night. And usually, even if folks can relate, we may get a side-eye for oversharing.
Now, honestly, I think we can all admit that when our kids are not yet school-aged, it is overwhelming, even without a job outside the home. Yet when this conversation comes up, I am pretty sure it seldom takes this turn when directed toward a man. But should it? I am asking this honestly, because I am not of that camp that wants to advocate for all mothers to have professional careers. For some, they’d go nuts staying at home; for others, it is the only place they want to be. For many, there is no choice – they have to work for financial reasons. And for many women, jumping off the career trajectory they are on doesn’t seem like a viable option, as they may fear taking 10 steps back when they try to get back on in a few years’ time.
As for the conversation I was having, it wasn’t that it made me uncomfortable or even defensive. My coworker was very nice about how he broached the subject, stating that it had been difficult for both him and his wife in the early years of parenting. He mentioned how organizations such as ours needed to be supportive of working parents all around – both mothers and fathers (which, of course, they should!). And he offered up suggestions for ways I could remain a part of the workforce. But there was certainly a slant towards what I felt was his opinion of the logical choice. Mothers (and fathers) should be able to speak of our struggles without being fearful of how others, especially coworkers, may react. Just because we admit it’s hard, doesn’t mean we are raising the white flag and declaring defeat. Maybe we just need a little support and someone to say, “Yep, I’ve been there, too.”
How do you support new parent coworkers in your organization? Do you have tips for normalizing these types of conversations in the workplace? Tell me about it in the comments, below!