Sometimes it seems like you just can’t win as a working mom. If you decide to go on maternity leave, you’re seen as less competent and committed at work. On the flip side, if you don’t take maternity leave, you’re judged to be a worse parent, a less desirable partner and a less caring person.
So flexible work arrangements should be a perfect solution. Moms who manage to squeeze both baby and work into a busy day should be seen as superheroes, right? Not quite.
Take, for example, the case of former New Zealand lawmaker Holly Walker. Three months after returning to work from maternity leave, she hosted a drop-in clinic for her constituents in the city of Petone, since Parliament wasn’t in session. When it was over, she met up with her husband and baby daughter, fed her and took her for a walk around the park.
“It was a beautiful day, and I felt a rare sense of ease and wellbeing, so I took a picture and tweeted it, saying something like ‘What a perfect Petone day,’” she recalls in her new book, The Whole Intimate Mess.
Even in today’s era of carefully calibrated political messaging, the tweet should have been completely unexceptional. Except it wasn’t.
A few days later, she received a call from her party’s press secretary, also a working mother who had seen the tweet, and “thoughtfully passed on that, to parents with children in daycare who would like nothing more than to be out walking with them on a sunny Friday afternoon, an MP posting a tweet like this was not a good look.”
In other words, she shouldn't be seen looking like a real working mother—even by other working mothers.
After hanging up the phone, she burst into sobs, and then she crafted the perfect response:
Well thanks. I’ll be sure to take that on board. Far be it from me to model the kind of flexible working arrangement that might actually encourage other mothers to see Parliament as a viable choice for them. I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that politicians ever have any time off. Of course it’s beyond comprehension that I could ever take my baby with me to work, whether to the office or with me on community engagements. No one would ever assume, seeing me do something with my kid during the day, that I spend the nights catching up with emails, writing press releases and question bids, reading legislation and select committee documents, planning an election campaign, on conference calls, replying to correspondence, reviewing policy documents and peer-reviewing my colleagues’ work, all before I go to bed and wake 3–5 times per night to feed my baby, and then get up in the morning to do it all again. Never mind the fact that my partner has given up his job and worn holes in the soles of his shoes walking our baby to sleep so that I can stay in this job. Or the fact that even if I was ‘just’ caring for my baby, that that alone is bloody hard work.
Can we get an amen? Walker’s reply hits the nail on the head: Working mothers are almost always working. If you see us with our kids at 10 a.m., it means you’ll find us finishing up emails at 10 p.m.
Unfortunately, in the end, Walker wasn’t able to balance the demands of being a new mom and politician. “There is nothing normal about crawling up the hallway, screaming and hitting yourself in the head, in front of your baby, and then pulling yourself together 10 minutes before 20 volunteers arrive at your house so that you can train them and then lead them out to canvass the neighborhood door to door,” she confesses. So she quit.
Though her tale takes place in New Zealand, I’m sure many American moms in elected officewould nod in understanding. After all, we know that working mothers are judged more harshly than dads on the campaign trail. It’s highly doubtful that scrutiny ends when they enter office.
Another big lesson learned from Walker’s tale? We working moms need to go easier on each other, too. So what if one mom brings her baby to work, or another never mentions her baby at all? Let’s embrace the notion that we all have different ways of approaching working motherhood—and support and celebrate each other for being hard-working heroes who somehow manage to get it all done, no matter what.
This article was originally published on Working Mother.
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