By guest writer Celine Cabannes
“You’ll see when she gives birth, she’ll be on sick leave all the time.”
This was a not-so-pleasant remark made by a client of mine to my manager, right in front of me, when I was pregnant. The comment was delivered in a humorous manner, but did it make it better? No. Not at all.
This comment is a projection and a generalization, spreading the idea that as a new mother I was not going to be fully committed to my job anymore. And yes, it made me question my own loyalty towards my job. Was I going to be a woman who would be constantly taking leave for her child? As I was questioning my professional loyalty, I was also feeling conflicted and with that, another question arose: would I not attend to my child if she needed me?
Then I gave birth, and that was definitely a transformative experience. Nothing prepares you for parenthood. There are books about parenting but no training, no schooling, no internship, and certainly no exams for you to be ready. Being a mother and going back to work was a baptism of fire. This was also a revelation.
I, for one, could multitask at an unprecedented level.
I went back to the office when my child was about 4 months old and in the nursery. The government in my country of residence allows young mothers to work one hour less a day until the baby reaches 9 months. As a breastfeeding mother, I took advantage of this given hour during my lunch break, in order to breastfeed her at the nursery.
Then, I was pumping milk at the office to make sure she would have milk whenever she needed it.
“Pumping milk” at the office, writing this sentence is awkward, imagine experiencing it.
Yes, nature was invading the corporate world… my body was producing milk to feed my child, and I was equipped with a slightly noisy pump (although are there any truly silent pumps?). I was also on top of my laptop, checking emails, making and taking calls while figuring out marketing strategies for the brands I was looking after.
I learned the importance of substance.
There’s a difference between “being busy” and “producing work”. Unfortunately, I have witnessed employees leaving the office only after their bosses have left, to project the image of hard-working employees. To me, this is a silly game.
As a mother, the concept of “busy” simply does not exist. The only thing you are going to do is productive work as there is no extra time in a day. Coming into work an hour earlier or leaving an hour later was simply impossible when you have a baby that must be fed several times a day…Unless I wanted to be attached to a breast pump. Therefore, I was focused on, applying my beloved Pareto principle or 80/20 rule to everything I was working on. Getting to the core, finding the priorities, taking actions that would have a true impact on the bottom line.
I learned compassion and this made me a better manager.
I actually became more human in the workplace. Yes, productivity and efficiency were key for my job and I was feeling on top of my game. On the other hand, holding a baby, who was giving me unconditional love and trust, allowed me to be more vulnerable, more authentic, and therefore allowed me to connect better with people around me.
"I realized that the traditional authoritative leadership model was dead to me. Yes, I could lead, yes, I could manage people but with kindness and assertiveness."
I learned the importance of listening, delegating, and creating the best working environment for my team. I realized that I was being a “parent” to them, empowering them, giving them both freedom and responsibilities. They knew I was here to support them, guide them, and help them grow, while they clearly knew what I expected from them.
Being an asset to a company is not about being a robot who will work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s about bringing value to the company, delivering qualitative work in a timely manner, but also coming up with creative solutions, and especially when you’re working at a managerial level, being able to embark and inspire your team on a journey to success. Being a mother actually taught me to be a better employee.
Working mothers account for a large part of the workplace, contributing to the wealth of entire nations. On average across OECD countries around 66% of mothers with children aged 0-14 are in employment, with many working full time.
In parallel, rising employment rates of women have been linked with falling fertility rate, and that should be a concern to all of us (OECD Employment Outlook, 2001). Indeed, low fertility rates will exacerbate shortfalls in labour supply if they continue. Besides, the Western world is on a journey towards gender equality, having mothers in employment is one of the keys to reaching this objective.
These are facts that anybody - managers, business owners, co-workers - must integrate.
A shift in corporate culture is required. Women who become mothers should not be shamed or ostracized in the workplace. They should feel appreciated and their value should be recognized and celebrated in the workplace. Working mothers are not lazy, they simply have new concerns and new responsibilities outside the workplace. In a practical way, it is up to the company to make sure that their employees are worry-free so they can focus and commit to their job. Not all companies have the possibility of creating an on-site nursery, but every manager can sit down with their colleagues and look for creative solutions on how to conciliate parenting needs with productivity. Flexible hours, being able to work from home are practices that have been implemented with success not only to working parents.
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, employers and working mothers are under an even greater deal of pressure. During periods of lockdowns, many mothers need to work remotely, take care of their children, of their home, within the same time frame and often within the same space. My experience of lockdown was “enlightening”. I observed my two young daughters, 5 and 3-year-old at the time, sitting at their small desks, typing frantically on old laptops while pretending to cook dinner in their play kitchen. From now and then, I would hear, “I am busy, I have to work”! My children were just mirroring what they were experiencing. I was working and cooking food. Period. These were my priorities. I wanted to get the work done, feeling guilty of being at home with my children. However, this was not a holiday and this was not “my fault”. Would I like to do things differently would we need to go under a second lockdown? Definitely. I would like to discuss with my management being able to work during my children nap time, TV time, and bedtime. Would that amount to 8 hours of work? Possibly not. This is why, managers need to streamline and prioritize even more the work that needs to be done during these challenging times. What is key? What is essential to our business and what is my “working mother” employee best at doing? These are the questions that need to be raised. We must keep work as lean as possible during this crisis.
Let’s shatter the paradigm of mothers feeling guilty at work because they are not attending their children and feeling guilty when they are with their children because they are not working. Let’s help working mothers to be mindful and focused, whether they are parenting or working. Let’s employ more mothers!
“The very fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one” Jodi Picoult