In a piece for Maclean’s written earlier this year, Canadian writer Shannon Proudfoot tackled the problem with what she termed the “badass-working-parent meme.” According to Proudfoot, this phenomenon — often perpetuated by executives, politicians, and other professionals — propagates unrealistic ideals and ignores the very real challenges many working parents face as they navigate the working world.
While some may disagree with Proudfoot’s assessment, I found myself repeatedly nodding in agreement while reading her piece. To those who know me, that might seem contradictory. For one, I am a proud working parents advocate. I’ve co-chaired a “Working Parents Committee” through the local chapter of my state women’s bar association for the past three years.
I am also a plaintiff-side employment discrimination attorney who has represented numerous working parents—primarily women who faced discrimination at work after becoming pregnant or giving birth. I’ve attended conferences on the rights of working parents. I’ve presented on workplace pregnancy and lactation rights. I write articles about working parents, like this one.
Moreover, I myself am a working parent. When my first child was born three years ago, I was fortunate to receive four months of paid maternity leave followed by a flexible schedule upon my return to work. In the beginning, I worked from home on Wednesdays, balancing my caseload amid the needs of my infant son. Eventually, I worked from home more and more until I switched status with my firm to “of counsel” and began working from home exclusively—all with my son alongside me.
Three months ago, I gave birth to twins, and, though I am now enjoying a long-term leave with the babies, I am also focusing on my writing career—from home. Not a single day has passed over the last three-plus years where I haven’t juggled work and kids in some manner.
My oldest has been to my downtown office on several occasions and loves visiting the “big building.” I’ve fielded phone calls with opposing attorneys, clients, and even judges while my toddler babbled in the background. I’ve written threatening emails while rocking babies to sleep. I’ve drafted appellate briefs while wearing superhero masks, and I’ve orchestrated networking events specifically for attorneys and their families.
In many ways, I am the epitome of the “bad-ass-working-parent meme,” and yet I still wholeheartedly agree that this image high-achieving working parents portray can be problematic—for several reasons.
First, it completely disregards the need for a support system for working parents that includes things like paid parental leave and quality childcare. This is especially problematic in the United States where there is no federal paid parental leave, and where the various types of leave that are offered are frequently unpaid and not available to everyone.
It also ignores the fact that one in four women in this country return to work within two weeks of giving birth, a statistic that should shock every person with a conscience to their core.
The meme is problematic because it perpetuates the warped sense of pride in working moms that forces them to one-up each other in online comment sections over how soon they returned to work after birth.
I’ve seen it in the comment sections of articles I’ve written about problems with the U.S.’s non-existent paid leave system—women boasting about how they “gave birth on Friday” and were “back to work doing payroll on Monday,” or how they didn’t take a single day off.
How and why is that OK, and why should that be something toward which we aspire? It shouldn’t. We shouldn’t actively participate in dehumanizing ourselves, painting those who took longer to recover or who took more time off after birth as indulgent or weak.
As a wise professor in law school once said, the problem with many Americans is that we look at others and we say, “why them?” when we really should be saying “why not us?”.
We should be looking at the paid parental leave and childcare systems offered around the world and saying, “why don’t we have that, and how do we get that?” instead of angrily blustering that such a system would be untenable or unaffordable.
Moreover, the bad-ass-working-parent meme also completely disregards the fact that we can’t do it all, and that we shouldn’t be expected to do it all. I don’t know a single working parent who does it all alone. Every single one of them has a support structure of some kind.
It’s unrealistic to think that every working mom and dad should be a lone wolf and that success as a working parent requires winning some Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest contest.
Finally, like Proudfoot so aptly pointed out, one of the ugliest problems with this meme is that it completely excludes people of a lower socioeconomic status. As she stated, “you’re never going to see a viral photo of a parent working a drive-thru window or mopping a floor with their infant strapped into a carrier, surrounded by co-workers and a shift manager smiling indulgently.”
In fact, where such workers do try to combine work and family, very different, much uglier outcomes can result, like the Rochester, N.Y. parents who were arrested in March 2017 after they left their children on a bench while they worked their shifts inside of a shopping mall. They were charged with three counts of endangering the welfare of a child—quite a contrast to the adoration and admiration festooned upon working professionals of the upper echelon who bring their children to work.
Now, does all of this mean we should stop taking advantage of flex schedules and family-friendly policies, or that we shouldn’t feel proud of our accomplishments as working parents? Absolutely not.
However, it does mean we should be aware of our privilege if we find ourselves on the “winning” side of this meme, and that we should work and call for action from our representatives for policies that support ALL working parents.
And, like Proudfoot stated—if you know or see a working parent out in the wild—lend them a hand. Though they might not admit it, they need and appreciate your help.
Finally, if you are self-proclaimed badass working parent, indulge us with some real talk. Here, I’ll do it for you: working parenthood is not easy. It’s often hard and always challenging. It is not linear, either. There are ups and downs, and scribbles all over the page. So, don’t feel bad if your working parenthood looks a little messy. It looks that way for all of us.
Candace is a practicing attorney, working parents advocate, freelance writer, and proud mom. Her legal practice focuses on workers’ rights. She can be found writing about law, motherhood, and more on her blog as The Mom at Law.
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