What Will It Take for Mothers to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Mess of Career and Life?

Issue 92 — April 28, 2019

“Please remove the word ‘working’ from ‘mother’ the title of our upcoming Virtual Happy Hour webcast,” I said to my team. “All mothers are working mothers.”

Seriously, it’s 2019. Isn’t it past time for women to reject the narrative that puts the parental burden almost entirely on us and judges us for everything we do or do not do as parents and career women? Who ever heard a man called a “working dad?”

It’s surely past time to make fundamental changes in attitudes and in the workplace that will change the world for women and men for the better.

You’d think this would be an easy task now that baby bumps are front page news, pregnant stand-up comedians like Amy Schumer and Ali Wong play their pregnancies for laughs, and the blockbuster movie “Avengers: Endgame” for the most part gives female superheroes their due.

When female leaders and motherhood are both normalized in the workplace and beyond, we will know gender equality can’t be far behind. Until then, there are issues, and we need new solutions in keeping with the way people live today.

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Motherhood is powerful: my mother Florence Feldt and me.

But what about women who take time off when their children are young?

“I have a Master’s in engineering,” a woman told me at a panel I moderated, “and I worked in increasingly responsible positions for 15 years. I took a few years off with my kids, and now I can’t get back into that job, let alone one anywhere near the career path I was on when I left. I’ve stayed current in my field, but those hiring see only the gap in my resume. What’s your advice?”

I blurted out: “Put parenthood on your resume! List the skills you’ve learned from it, the things you have accomplished because of it.”

That wasn’t a well thought-out answer, but since then, I’ve come to believe it is a solution to one aspect of the implicit bias that results in the so-called “mommy penalty.” We must start by asserting the value of parenting skills to the workplace.

I’ve raised three children. Nothing I’ve done in life — not teaching school, not writing books, not even being president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America — has taught me as much about leadership as raising those kids.

Think about it. Organizational skills, juggling multiple high stress priorities, communication skills, patience (well, maybe not so much of that) with diverse personalities, crisis management, developing innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems — you name it, parents do it every day. Seven days a week, with no vacations or holidays.

And who is a better negotiator than a child? Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman and Managing Director Carla Harris, a self described “no nonsense, hard driving, analytical investment banker” told me that six months after she adopted a baby girl, she realized she had learned so much about negotiating. “You can’t win a negotiation with a child by pushing hard; you have to find the way she will want to come along to what you want her to do,” she told me.

I’m quite sure I would not have been nearly as successful in my own career had I not learned skills like these from parenthood.

The audience cheered when I said that. Perhaps that’s because the women in the room all knew such a paradigm shift would right a long-standing gender imbalance in pay and prestige.

Here I’m with Denise Lee, founder of the athletic clothing company Alala during a photo shoot in support of Equal Means Equal, as in pass the Equal Rights Amendment now. This is one policy measure that would certainly help.

Not increments, but full out paradigm shift is needed.

This might not be as radical as it sounds. After all, in centuries past and still today in many farming families, everyone worked together. The division between work and family isn’t as pronounced as it is in the business world.

But as the industrial revolution led to a separation of what we call “work” and what we call “life,” gendered division of labor became more extreme, and binary gender roles became ingrained in the culture. This led to the idealization of the nuclear family, much more “Leave It to Beaver” than The Simpsons, and of course, usually lily white.

As the economy and the laws changed, and family structure once again changed with them, cultural norms about who does what have not kept pace. Married women still do more of the housework and childcare than their male spouses. This leads author Jessica Valenti to write, “Kids don’t harm women’s careers. Men do.”

So how do company policies and our culture catch up to today’s family reality?

First, companies will soon realize that the cost of recruiting and retraining the talent they lose when women leave the workforce or cut back on their participation, is expensive. It’s estimated that the cost to recruit and train a new employee is about one-fifth of the annual salary of the employee who left, and that doesn’t count lost productivity.

Further, “Sex-equality and equal protection laws generally kick in too late,” says Christine Emba, Washington Post columnist. Emba’s suggested paradigm shift is based on an article in the Columbia Law Review by professors David Fontana and Naomi Schoenbaum: “We have to ‘unsex’ pregnancy.”

By this she means that beyond the not unimportant biological fact that (at least currently) women carry pregnancy and give birth, other aspects of parenthood should be disaggregated from stereotypes about who goes to the office and who is the caregiver.

Join the conversation and be part of the change.

I’ll tackle this topic that so many mothers worry about on my May 8 Virtual Happy Hour, with Brigid Schulte, director of Better Life Lab at New America and author of the New York Times bestselling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has The Time; and Shadiah Sigala, Cofounder and CEO of Kinside, a child care network, and previously cofounder of HoneyBook. Register now to join us live at 6:30 pm EDT so you can get your questions answered and your point of view heard. Or register even if you can’t participate live and we’ll send you the recording afterward.

Join us for our Virtual Happy Hour on May 8th!

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.