Hard Talk: Work, Motherhood and the Unfinished Discussion

By Nicki Gilmour

Welcome to my new column called Hard Talk.

Nicki GilmourThis column will surface the topics that are buried by most of us due to many reasons including fear, exasperation, denial, taboos and lack of information until we stumble upon the topic itself as a challenge. Also, happy Mother’s Day.

I am going to start by telling you I do not have all, if any, of the answers, but I do want to create the space for each of us to come up with our own answers while offering insight into the individual and common psychology that binds us. I believe there is value to putting on the table the systemic and psychological reasons that explain why important topics are often ignored by the best of us as it pertains to careers and the person we are inside and outside of the office building.

How to spot a difficult subject

There are so many things that we aren’t willing to talk about in society and, in this instance, corporate life. How do you spot a taboo or something that just isn’t “on the table,” or, weirdly, is half on the table, whereby the topic seems like it is being dealt with or is resolved already, but really isn’t?

A sign to look for is when the topic is mostly talked about in a personalized (subjective) way, pitting women or people against other women or other people, suggesting somehow it is not a systemic issue but rather a matter choices and opinions. This is false reasoning when the so-called choices are a binary revolving around a lose-lose paradigm that only one societal group has to participate in.

The topic must be identified for real solutions to be found.

Why is motherhood a minefield topic?

Motherhood is a tricky topic as it is an identity and a job in itself. Fatherhood, when played out as many fathers do now in the legacy mother role of primary caregiver, also begs analysis for bias, but for now we shall discuss motherhood. Not everyone wants (another taboo) or can have (another under-discussed taboo) babies. But for those who do, there is not a woman alive in a defined career trajectory who has not given serious thought to the timing and logistics of how having a kid will affect her career. Anxiety at worst, mindshare at best. Once in it, motherhood can become both a Chief Operations Officer job and an internship as moving parts and project scheduling and learning plus actual execution are all very much part of the job. This is on top of a (big, busy and important) day job.

Just to be clear, this column is not one of judgment or even grouping as everyone has different feelings towards ambition, guilt and their own individual needs regarding work and what they glean intellectually, emotionally and financially from doing it. Additionally, there are so many influencing elements around each person’s spousal division of labor, capacity to organize and delegate support. Then there is the other topic of how much money each person has to throw at solutions should their preference lie there. And if the primary care giver is your spouse – man or woman – the conversation certainly changes slightly.

The difficulty of saying small humans disrupt life as we know it

Why has it taken me 13 years and 8,000 articles published to touch this topic? Simply put, we were in another time era. It is only very recently that corporations are in a place to discuss policy around parental leave as opposed to maternity leave. Equal pay for the same job in the US and elsewhere – such as the UK – is still being truly decided and addressed. We are not as advanced as we think we are.

The perception around women and babies and how that somehow negatively affected productivity or competence was just too strong. It felt like even indulging in the conversation of babies impacting careers was an admission that there was validity to the possibility that it was so. Instead of speaking in terms of systemic changes, we were very much stuck in an individual choices discussion.

The denial around impact of any kind was necessary because it felt like a betrayal to the messaging around “you can do it,” “just lean in” and other Generation X messaging to women. Good men with willingness to change have continued to be messaged more or less the same “provider” talk until recently and those who bucked the trend have had their own bias to deal with, from being excluded from mommy coffee dates to how to enter a bathroom to change their babies.

Motherhood has been said to be the unfinished work of feminism in a matricentric theory and movement being proposed by Andrea O’Reilly. Motherhood has been largely left out of feminist theory and I think this is why my usual “push the envelope and talk about it anyway” trait, which has allowed us to talk about intersecting identities at work in so many forms, has not attracted me to this topic until now. Apparently I was not on my own but like my evolution on the willingness to talk about it, others indicate a sea change with The Guardian’s Amy Westervelt opining that, “Most surprising to me, as someone told by women’s magazine editors for years ‘we don’t cover motherhood’, is the fact that publications like Elle and Marie Claire appear to have lifted their long-standing ban on motherhood.”

Still an issue to resolve

Ann Crittenden, in her book “The Price of Motherhood”, states, “once a woman has a baby, the egalitarian office party is over thoroughly.”

And other people have written at length regarding the bias of motherhood for pay and promotions so it is felt currently by some and is far from a resolved issue, culturally. In fact, if you look at Wikipedia’s definition of “mommy track” it is interesting to see that they define it almost as a choice for women to take, instead of an action that happens to women by others.

No company has this issue cracked. But, some are trying hard to create conditions culturally and programmatically. It still feels like the conversation needs to be reframed and developed to redesign the workplace of the future with a society to match. In the meantime, look for those companies that remove the subjectivity of flextime or where parental leave is taken by men for real amounts of time. Live your values and instead of the lean in message, and perhaps focus on personal renewal while the system catches up.