There are a lot of new social dynamics (aka other people’s perceptions) waiting for you when you return from maternity leave.
What do your colleagues think when you exit exactly at 6 p.m. on the dot? What do your direct reports think when you aren’t available because you’re pumping? And most of all, what does your boss think of you and your work ethic and performance (whether or not it’s changed)?
Mommy-tracking is a term that was coined in the heated discussions that came on the heels of an article written in 1989 by Felice Schwartz, the founder of Catalyst, a non-profit organization that advocates for women’s opportunities in the workplace. Schwartz’s piece argued that women who wanted both families and careers needed to have expanded workplace options, such as flexibility. In the aftermath of her piece, the term “mommy track” became synonymous with the career paths women took who wanted less ambitious jobs and careers after they had children.
Certainly many women actively choose and pursue jobs that allow them to stay in the workforce and their jobs with the kind of work-life balance profile they’re looking for. We’ve previously written about how to explore different career avenues (including quitting and taking a career break).
But what if you’re a woman who is a new mom and doesn’t feel any less committed to their job? As our friend Lori Mihalich-Levin puts it beautifully in her piece for Mother.ly:
"This isn’t a zero-sum game, folks. You know how you can start loving someone in your life without losing any love you had for someone else? Same thing here. Yes, I’m now pulled in more directions than before, but it doesn’t mean I’ve given up my passion for the work I knew and loved before baby arrived on the scene.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of personality, or timing but certainly some moms are more ambitions after having kids. There are also some women who have no choice in the matter, e.g. single, bread-winning mothers.
Any of these women can feel marginalized by fellow moms as well as their managers and colleagues who make assumptions about what they want and prioritize after they’ve had kids."
So what do you do if you’re feeling side-lined at work because you’re a mom?
Your boss matters the most.
Remember that while it can be painful to have colleagues and others make assumptions about you, it’s harder to worry about what everyone thinks when they don’t deal directly with your deliverables and work product. What your manager perceives is the most important when it comes to getting your pay raises and promotions. As Kerry Watson explains on Quora:
It doesn't matter what people are saying, it matters what your boss is saying. You need good communications with your boss. Do you have that?
Of course, this may not necessarily be true. The more senior you get, the more political capital you will need from others around you who will be your peers or one level above you. Your boss may be influenced by your general reputation, but there’s less you can do about that, except to “develop your connections and relationships”, which is one of the things that Bonnie-Foley Wong, CEO of Picque Ventures, advises anyone do when they feel side-lined for career opportunities.
Be direct about your ambitions.
Some of us are blessed with the most understanding managers. But sometimes, ironically, the most generous bosses are sometimes the ones that can be problematic when it comes to being mommy-tracked because they may assume you want certain things that you don’t (e.g. reduced hours, less travel, or more flexibility).
Our co-founder Georgene was concerned about being mommy-tracked from the outset of her first pregnancy and told her CEO during her maternity leave that she wanted a promotion when she found out her direct manager had left the company while she was on leave. In response, she specifically asked for a promotion into a role that her boss had previously held, and received it.
Back up your words with action.
If you truly want exactly the same kind of workload as you would otherwise take on without children, you need to live up to that in your actions. Be sure to deliver the results that are expected and do what you need to do in your job/deal/with your clients that you would have otherwise done. This may mean working long hours and taking on business travel, but if that’s what you want, embrace it and don’t look back.
Counter any assumptions head-on.
Sometimes you work somewhere where there are no other working moms in leadership positions. This can cause an implicit assumption by your colleagues and manager that you may not want to take more more responsibility or seniority. If that’s not how you feel, journalist Katherine Lewis suggests to tackle the issue head-on. She says:
"Don't be afraid to be a trailblazer. If your organization has a tendency to bypass working mothers for travel or challenging projects, make sure you seek out these opportunities. You may further your professional goals simply by correcting an assumption that you don't want demanding work."
Remember — everything is temporary.
While it can be so frustrating to be mommy tracked before, during or after pregnancy, please remember that no career is a straight line. Our friend Lisen Stromberg wrote an entire book called "Work. Pause. Thrive" about how women slowed down their careers after having children, only to kill it later on. So if you feel like things aren’t moving exactly at the pace you’d like them to be, take a deep breath. You will get there if you set your mind to it.
If all else fails:
Being discriminated against because of your gender or parental status is against the law and if you truly think that “mommy tracking” is persistent and unchangeable regardless of the effort you’re putting into your work, you may have to explore your legal options the way that Kelley Voelker did. However, legal action is expensive and risky and really should be a last resort. Unfair as it may be, another option may simply be to look for a new job.