Corporate America and Motherhood Today :: A Dysfunctional Melodrama in 3 Acts

Corporate America and Motherhood Today:: A Dysfunctional Melodrama in 3 Acts | Houston Moms Blog

It’s time we address some elephants in the coffee break room. These discussions have been going on for quite some time, but the people with the passion to truly see it through are….well, largely too overwhelmed and busy.

Mothers in Corporate America have varying degrees of workplace flexibility depending on the company they work for, the economic climate at the time, the industry in which they work as well as a multitude of other factors. I appreciate that there are some companies out there trailblazing a new path, and we are endlessly thankful to them. However, by and large, there are still significant hurdles a mother must overcome in her career, and many times the sacrifices we are asked to make come at too high of a price.

Act One :: Family Planning & Maternity Leave

Women often start off their careers feeling optimistic, and statistics show that we actually excel within our first 7 years of entering the workforce. Generally speaking, women often exhibit a natural aptitude for intuition, empathy, sensitivity to various factors in complex situations, multi-tasking, and a natural propensity for inclusion. These are some of the hallmarks of a perfect manager in the making. So, we are often pegged for the management track, and we gladly pick up the sword and rush in headstrong.

In my career, this is exactly what unfolded, and I have seen it in so many women’s careers. We are excited about what lies ahead on the horizon. The possibilities seem endless. If we’re not feeling the job responsibilities of our current role, we negotiate a beneficial transfer. If we encounter one of those old curmudgeons that like to berate employees, we find a way to get around them, transfer departments, or move companies. When our boss wants us to travel and work long hours, we often welcome the challenge and enjoy the experience. And when we encounter workplace discrimination or sexual harassment? We have options to navigate around it and unlike years past, our complaints are much more frequently met with formal corporate policies and our claims are given due process. We have options galore, and we have the freedom and flexibility to explore them. {Let me insert a sincere and deeply heartfelt word of gratitude to the women and men from previous generations that set the stage for this to be possible.}

Then we find a partner that sparks the maternal flame in us, or maybe it was always burning and it now feels like “go time”. We pick up the company manual and start exploring maternity leave options. We start mapping out how we will navigate through this phase with the same zeal that we have approached our career up to this point. We ask questions. We make a plan. We set budgets. And we execute.

Then our new little bouncing bundle of joy arrives in our lives, and overnight this babe resets all of our priorities in life. For many working moms, this is the start of a landslide of inner and outer turmoil. Some days it’s totally manageable to navigate, and other days it is the full onslaught of stuff coming at us from every direction. There is the intensity of breastfeeding, sleep schedules, baby digestion issues, doctor appointments, navigating the changes in our relationships with our spouses, new baby expenses that put pressure on finances, crazy waitlists at daycares, paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, and on and on. Maternity leave is not a peaceful recovery and bonding period for us and our babies. It is full-on project management and multi-tasking that easily slips into overwhelm and confusion as to how we got there.

While I was on maternity leave with my first child, I struggled to get my hormones back to normal. This may sound like a very normal and relatively easy thing to fix to…well, to many managers, corporate decision makers, and policy makers. How do I know they have NO idea of the intensity of the process of getting our hormones, our bodies, and our minds fully recovered after pregnancy and giving birth? Because we do not have paid maternity leave as a standard in our country. This simple omission speaks volumes.  

In this Act, it is many women’s first encounter with old boys club rules of conducting business that still exist in Corporate America today. Up until this point we had options galore. We didn’t feel the boys club weighing us down, and if we did, we still had ways around it. But here it is. The message is clear – suck it up, be appreciative for what you get, put your head down and get back to work or don’t. It’s your choice.

Act Two :: A Return to Work with Babies

I definitely was not ready to upend my career plans after having my first child. Why couldn’t I be the one to set my own rules, to lift any perceived limits of moms being able to do it all, and shatter any glass ceilings that still exist?

And this was the message I received from my management as well – you set the pace of your career. You are responsible for managing your career path. You need to take ownership for career development and charting out your next steps. Corporate America likes to punt the ball to us, and I don’t think it’s with malicious intent. However, the problem is that it’s a superficial and flippant way to look at this stage of a woman’s career path, and managers and executives are not trained for nor sensitive to the immensity of the struggle mothers of young babies face – and why would I expect that they’d realize this? I certainly didn’t see it coming in my own life!

We continue to have the full onslaught of stuff coming at us from every direction, which upon returning to work now includes not only a desk full of work but also workplace BS like discrimination and harassment. There is still the intensity of breastfeeding and now add to that pumping breast milk at work discreetly, still trying to figure out sleep schedules, baby digestion issues, doctor appointments, still navigating the changes in our relationships with our spouses, and so many other new challenges that arise. As in most major cities, here in Houston we also have to deal with long stressful commutes. What do you do when daycare closes at 3 p.m. but you are expected to be a team player and stay until 5 p.m.?

The landslide becomes ferocious.

And we are still recovering physically and mentally from childbirth! Our hormones and bodies take on average 9 months after childbirth to get back to normal. For some women it is even longer than this. No one prepared me that I would have to sacrifice the very much needed time I once had to recharge myself from an intense work week. My mental health needs quickly took a sideline to everything else that had to get done. I had to learn how to compartmentalize and shift gears instantaneously from project manager to mom. I wound up ignoring that nagging voice in my head that said I needed to take care of me. When I had an intensely stressful day in the office, I was expected to be able to immediately bury it and switch to a slower, more loving, gentler demeanor and find a way to be mentally present for my family. And when I had an impossible night with a fussy baby, I had to pull myself together to interface with clients. It is the landslide that pummels us so hard those first few years after giving birth and returning to work with babies. Don’t even get me started on mommy brain.

Katherine Zaleski, a former manager of The Washington Post, describes this period well, “For mothers in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts—and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives. I didn’t realize this—or how horrible I’d been—until five years later, when I gave birth to a daughter of my own.” 

Sadly, Act 2 is where many women’s journey in Corporate America ends.

Women drop out of the workforce like flies, even those women that never foresaw being a stay-at-home mom. Why?

Corporate America says that it is their personal choice, a lifestyle choice. The moms I know that have left the workforce would openly say that “it just wasn’t a workable equation, any which way I tried to cut it.”

Many of the moms that stick it out become disillusioned. The career that was so promising and they cared about deeply becomes just a job. For many of us, there really is no other choice if we want to have some gas in our proverbial tank at the end of the day to be present for our families. We feel an unspoken ultimatum to choose between career and family.

Some call it the motherhood pause or “take our foot off the pedal” period of our career. It’s disheartening because many see, actively look for, and desperately hope for opportunities to make it a win/win with Corporate America. While a few of mothers find that win/win opportunity, I would speculate that a majority of us do not.

Act Three :: The Seasoned Mother

I am not in Act Three of the Corporate America melodrama yet. I have two little babies under the age of 5 at home, so what follows are my observations of moms in my circle.

We are rocking and rolling with a new home routine. Our kids are in school full time. They have some level of independence. Our lives have recovered from the plethora of baby equipment, diaper pails, formula stains, potty training, and those deep black circles under our eyes that were our daily acquaintances. Even if our littles still struggle with health issues or learning disabilities or our marriages are still recovering from the long periods of sleep deprivation, life stabilizes in a lot of ways. We have strengthened some of our motherhood coping skills. We can carve out small chunks of time for our self-care and bonding with other moms. Life constantly throws new challenges our way, but the challenge of a new screaming baby that requires an intense amount of time and comes with a huge learning curve is behind us.

For those moms that stick it out in the workforce and continue to press forward in their careers, the rewards can be great. They make their way through the ranks of Corporate America where they are some of the few mothers amongst their peers. Many times Corporate America and executive management celebrate them, and point to them as examples of what moms can do. And they have certainly earned their badge of honor often with many personal sacrifices along the way. The accolades are well-deserved, even if they are only making 60% of the compensation of their male counterparts.

This doesn’t mean these moms are kicking their feet up and coasting at this point. The rewards and the personal sacrifices seem to get greater the higher you climb the ladder. Burnout or a complete career pivot are very real possibilities at this stage. But the life and career hurdles largely seem to be on par with others at this level of the corporate ladder. Moms still face the difficult choice of a work trip or their child’s soccer game. They still struggle to find the time for self-care. They are navigating new motherhood challenges such as kids’ behavioral issues, school bullying, or kids rebelling. They are feeling their way through their children dating, driving, applying to college, and leaving the nest. Work life balance is still an immense challenge, but the disparity between moms and their peers in this Act is not as great as Act 2.

Epilogue ::

Where do we go from here? 

  1. Despite being short-handed, overwhelmed, and/or intensely busy, Corporate America and moms cannot back away from this issue. We need to fight together for that win/win solution that works. To Corporate America, please don’t provide lip service and superficial “solutions” to moms. To moms, stay in the conversation. Even if you choose to leave in Act 2, keep speaking up.
  2. The U.S. can do better by working parents in the way of parental leave. The argument that this makes the U.S. uncompetitive globally is weak. 

A very dear and well-respected colleague of mine challenged my position that moms of young children should receive special attention in Corporate America. He took a very egalitarian position that we all face hardships in our lives – a sick parent, our own disability or illness, an unexpected life-changing event, or otherwise – that require some flexibility from our employer. Why should new mothers be specifically catered to by Corporate America?

While I love the thought of putting everyone on an equal playing field, I do not think this is appropriate for new mothers in the workforce. I don’t disagree with him that other extenuating life circumstances should also be looked upon with empathy and a flexibility from employers to ultimately arrive at a win/win solution for all. However, Corporate America can do better by what is roughly 45% of the workforce, who are giving birth to and, along with many self-sacrificing fathers, are raising the next generation. The attrition of working moms is unparalleled by any other group in the workforce. The percentages at stake here are too great for a one-size fits all leave of absence policy. More attention to this segment of the workforce is merited by the sheer numbers affected. It would be a disservice to all the lost potential in Corporate America to water this issue down.


To all my Corporate America moms, what is your experience as a working mom? Which act are you in? Share with us the great things employers are doing out there, and where is there room for improvement. Please keep this very important conversation going!

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