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Is Motherhood in the Workplace the Kiss of Death?

The conundrum of motherhood in the United States (U.S.) is growing. Well, conundrum may be the wrong word. Yes…definitely the wrong word. However, if you’re a woman in the professional world, that word meaning “a confusing and difficult problem or question” might be apropos. Sadly, as much as motherhood should be celebrated for the woman who chooses to stay at home AND the woman who chooses to (or has to) work, it’s not. The ‘conundrum’ of motherhood remains an all too real issue for women in the U.S. The question isn’t “is there a penalty for working women who choose family in addition to career,” but “what do we do about the stigma associated with motherhood in the workplace?”

The Atlantic, an online news journal, tackled the subject of pregnancy and motherhood in the workforce. Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a working mother, cited a study by the Harvard Business Review that seemed to confirm that working mothers are seen as mother’s first, with the typical ‘trappings’ of motherhood (time off to care for children being one of those evils) and employees second. The study concluded that, “When identified as a mother as opposed to a father or a woman or man whose parental status wasn’t mentioned, the consultant was judged to be significantly less competent and was least likely to be hired or promoted by the (study) participants. The mere mention of a child led people to see the mother as less competent, and this perception did her in.”

I can’t say that I have first-hand experience with this. I am a childless, 30-something year old woman in the workplace. Sure, I’ve had co-workers who were parents, both mothers and fathers, and I never noticed any differential treatment between those of us without kids and those with kids. However, that might have a lot to do with my chosen profession. I have never worked in a corporate office. Ever. In college I had dreams of being a powerful, successful woman with money and prestige to spare. However, I wasn’t willing to deal with the culture of corporate America. I wanted to take guilt-free vacations, use my sick time without jumping through hoops to prove myself ill and more. As I watched my counterparts get worked to the bone in their unpaid internships at Fortune 500 companies during the summer, I took more classes, worked full-time at a non-profit and enjoyed my free time. Call me a slacker if you want (believe me, I heard every variation of that sentiment before), however, what you won’t call me is unhappy.

I learned in college that I didn’t want the stress of corporate America. So I’m okay with more making less money than some of my peers with whom I graduated. However, I know that when the time comes to have kids, I’m less likely to have to worry over my employer’s view of my contribution as a result of impending motherhood.

Now that all sounds well and good…for me. I made that choice and am supremely happy with it. What about those women who want what I wanted in college and want motherhood as well? Are they supposed to ‘settle’ for less money, less professional status and just be happy they have a job because of the false concept that mothers as employees aren’t as good as women employees who do not have kids?

Another The Atlantic article urged women not to forgo having children because they desire a career as well. I agree. The debate should not rest with women alone in a professional environment that is unwilling to update its distorted view of mothers as less than intelligent and capable employees. What needs to change is not women’s minds but the working climate toward not only motherhood, but parenthood.

Consider nations where the government makes it less cumbersome for parents to work and those who do not. In general, birth rates rise among the most educated women not forced to chose between career and motherhood. According to The Atlantic, “In countries like France and Scandinavia, where governments bend over backwards to make it as easy as possible to have both careers and families, with generous leaves, affordable daycare, and financial incentives, the birthrate has been moving back upward. In countries where governments make it difficult, the birthrates are falling precipitously.”

Until employers in the U.S. follow the lead of other industrialized nations and make it acceptable for both men and women to be fully functioning humans capable of living multi-dimensional lives, the conundrum of motherhood and parenthood overall (we’ll contrast fatherhood in the workplace with this topic another day), will remain.

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