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My mother didn’t tell anyone at work that she had kids

A college senior reflects on how mothers are penalized in the workplace—and the impact it had on her childhood.

My mother didn’t tell anyone at work that she had kids
[Photo: Fancycrave.com/Pexels]

My mother has been working since I can remember. I grew up in a suburban town in the South and lived there until I was 18, when I moved to New York City for college. The majority of my friends’ mothers were PTA moms, who spent their days working on elementary school fundraisers, going to barre classes, and gossiping. This meant I didn’t have many other people to compare my mom with, because she was one of the few working mothers I knew. Although more than 70% of moms with kids under the age of 18 are part of the workforce, in a middle-class white suburb in South Carolina, stay-at-home moms are the norm.

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These days she’s a regular freelancer for Fast Company, but while I was growing up, she wrote for a number of other publications, squeezing her work around our schedules. That meant she was doing interviews in our car in the school pick-up line or writing an article on her laptop on the bench outside of ballet class.

It wasn’t until I was 8 years old that I found out that her coworkers didn’t even know I existed. The first time I remember realizing this was when Mom took me with her to pick up a check from a local magazine where she was the business editor. One of the publishers, upon seeing my sister and me, said, “Whose kids are these?” It felt like a slap to the face. Learning that my mom didn’t acknowledge my existence felt like she didn’t want me to exist.

My father, on the other hand, is always eager to brag about us. It’s a running joke in my family that if you give him five minutes with anyone—and I mean anyone—he’ll bring up every single one of my sister’s and my accomplishments. My dad constantly brought us to his office. When my sister was in middle school and he worked as a director of development at a nonprofit, she would walk to his office every day after school and stay there until the end of his workday. At another job, he brought us in often enough for his boss to trust my sister and me to take care of the family rabbits when they were out of town. I can’t even count the number of (boring—sorry, Dad) work events I’ve been taken to with him. All his coworkers knew me.

The contrast between my parents felt heavy. While my father was telling anyone who would listen about even the smallest achievement, my mom hid the fact that she had children at all. It stung partly because I worked hard in school and extracurricular activities and I wanted for both of my parents to be proud of me. Even though my mom would tell me how proud she was of me, the fact that I didn’t exist for her when she was chatting with coworkers about their kids sometimes made me feel like I was nothing.

Her lack of boasting about me at work didn’t mean she wasn’t engaged. She made me lunch until I graduated from high school (organic, of course), drove me to dance class, showed up to every performance, let me cry about boys, and sent me to science camps every summer. I still find myself calling her when I feel sick, wishing she was here to give me tea.

Although she went back to work when my older sister was just five weeks old, after I was born she took two years off from her full-time job to care for us. My mother also sacrificed her home office so my sister and I could have separate bedrooms. She just wrote and edited her articles from our dining room table for years. Sometimes it felt like she made more sacrifices than my father. She decided freelance writing was the best option because it gave her a flexible schedule to take care of my sister and me. She gave up a steady income with promotions and benefits to be there for us.

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But it wasn’t until I reached my teens that I started to understand why she didn’t talk about us at work as freely as my dad did—because she felt like she couldn’t. I learned what it means to be a woman in this world, and I began to understand my mom’s perspective. Being a working woman with children brings a stigma: “Can you really handle this project/assignment/promotion if you have to take care of your kids?”

Researchers have done multiple studies about the motherhood penalty, a systematic disadvantage working mothers face that affects how competent they’re perceived to be, how much they get paid, and their likelihood of getting a promotion. According to a study by the Harvard Kennedy School, when you’re a mother in the workplace, you’re held to a higher standard and have less room to fail. In contrast, having a child often helps a man’s career.

This creates a difficult situation for new moms: Do I tell people about my kids and suffer the consequences, or do I keep my mouth shut?

When I was about 10, my mother was trying to get a full-time job with a communications agency. The owner of the agency told her he didn’t think she was ready to leave freelancing and her kids. Taking this job would have meant taking a pay cut from what she was earning through freelance projects, but the steady and reliable income was more important to her (and to us), so she pushed for it. But he stood his ground and told her no.

My father never had this problem. When I was 9 he switched from a corporate desk job to become the director of community engagement for a nonprofit that focused on helping neglected and abused kids. He used the fact that he was an involved father as a tool; he would often bring up the fact that having children himself showed him how important helping other kids in need truly is. Being a father gave him a leg up and made him more relatable.

Even when my sister and I got older, talking about us could still hurt my mom’s career—just in a different way. Media, like many industries, is obsessed with youth. While she was freelancing, if she talked about her high school and college-aged children, it would show not only that she’s a working mother, but also that she’s older, which could work against her. Although my dad was able to freely boast about our accomplishments and still continue to rise through the corporate ranks, my mom simply wasn’t able to do this.

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I’m 21 now, and a senior in college. I’m entering the workforce soon, and I’ve learned from her experience. One thing both my parents always taught me is that my career and my future should always come first—and not to depend on a spouse for financial support.

If I were in her situation, I don’t think I’d do anything that differently. I’d know that my children wouldn’t understand, but I’d explain just how hard it is to be a woman in the workplace, just like my mom did.

Just the other day I visited my mom for the first time at the Fast Company offices. I was coming from a job interview and stopped by to say hi, expecting her to meet me outside and then say goodbye. But she swiped me in, and I saw the beautiful view, the rows of cubicles, and her desk, littered with name tags she’s worn at events where she’d been a speaker. I was greeted by her deskmate, who said, “You’re the international traveler?” and I knew that she had talked enough about me for him to know that I was just abroad. It felt like a door had been opened, that my mother was finally willing to show me off to people she works with. We’ve always been close, but it felt like we had reached a milestone.

Honestly, I’m still learning how to deal with how I feel about my mother’s decision to keep us a secret at work for much of our lives. However, my mom will always be my feminist icon because in the land of suburban stay-at-home moms she continued to try and build a career. This went a long way toward teaching me the value of being your own person. I will always respect her ability to balance meeting deadlines and making dinner every night or taking me to the doctor’s office in the middle of the day. I know that she’s proud of me, and I’m proud of her, too.

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