When I was a young mother, nothing was more humiliating – or career destroying – than reminding my employer that I was raising a family. I started my career in the 1980s at a Detroit law firm. Back then, they still told the story of the retirement party of a legal secretary who’d worked there 30 years. A man appeared at the party who she introduced as her husband. All those years, and no one even knew she was married.
By the time I joined the firm, we were expected to plop children and not trouble anyone about it. There was no maternity leave policy, and no end to work hours. I clearly remember the moment my prospects as a blue-stockinged lawyer ended. We were at a late Friday afternoon meeting with a senior partner who needed things to be on his desk by Monday.
I blurted, “I can’t work on Sunday. I’m giving a baby shower.” It was as if I’d farted in the room. The stench followed me until I left the firm after having my first child. For the rest of my career, I went through extreme lengths to hide the horrors of Mothering While Employed. I had been trained well to keep my real life crammed behind the curtain if I expected to advance in the work world. As my mother used to say when we talked with food in our mouths: “Nobody wants to see that.”
For decades now, women have marched to the office with a stiff upper lip, braving the untenable storm that happens when the Sharknado of mothering meets the tsunami of work. And now, with the pandemic, they’re at the breaking point. Of those not working during the pandemic, women ages 25-44 are almost three times more likely than men to not be working due to child care demands, according to Census Bureau data.
Those mothers who persisted continue to do the bulk of the “balancing” when it comes to parenting, The New York Times reports. And sadly, the vast majority of them still feel compelled to “hide child care concerns because they worry that their employer or colleagues won’t understand,” according to a 2020 survey by the advocacy organization Care@Work.
But thanks to the viral spread of virtual meetings, mothers can no longer hide behind the geographic boundary that separates work and home. Zoom calls are an intrusive look behind the curtain, to that chaotic place where babies scream, dogs yowl, doorbells ring, piles of laundry topple and toilets flush all while we are on camera.
To be sure, the new working landscape has loosened the strictures of “professional” expectations for all Americans, relaxing everything from workwear to grooming and makeup, and even deadlines. But the eased work protocols have nothing to do with work demands, which are increasing.
“There is no real conversation about reducing productivity expectations,” says a mother who works in the communications industry. “We’re told we’re ‘trusted to get our work done.’ But the workload isn’t changing. I’m now a home-school teacher, and an office and house manager. So, what that means in practice is, we mothers are never not working.”
And with the avalanche of high expectations comes the internal and external pressure for mothers to make it look effortless. “When I wake up, I have to feed everyone and get them set up,” says another mother. “I find it difficult to concentrate with the noises of family in the background. Overall, my company is understanding and accommodating, but it’s extremely difficult for me.”
I have a friend on the West Coast whose daughter’s fish died minutes before a work call was to begin. Her preadolescent daughter is desperately grieving the loss of her pre-COVID life. The fish’s death ignited such profound mourning that my friend could not participate in her meeting.
“There was a time when no one would know that my daughter’s fish died,” she says. “But with COVID, I just logged on and fessed up. I can’t pretend I’m not at home when my daughter needs me.” Even while employers pay lip service to being more flexible, my friend wonders if the incident will go in her “permanent file.”
“When it comes time for a promotion, will they give it to me, or will they think of the day I didn’t come to a meeting because a fish died?” If the pandemic has made anything clear it’s this: During the fight for women’s equality, women moved, but no one else did. It’s time to fix that, America, from the conference room to the family room.
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.