Whether you’ve just returned from maternity leave or have been a working mom for years, your experience at work can be different from that of your child-free co-workers. In addition to the logistics of juggling work and parenthood, you might also find yourself confronting the “maternal wall.” Similar to the glass ceiling, the maternal wall is an extra barrier working mothers must overcome in order to advance professionally. This barrier consists of the stereotypes that cause managers and co-workers to question women’s business proficiency once they get pregnant, go on maternity leave or adopt flexible work schedules.
Communication between working moms and their co-workers is key to avoiding the misunderstandings, frustration and resentment the maternal wall can cause. Below are the most important questions you should answer for your colleagues about your experience as a working mom, as well as guidance on the best ways to approach these conversations.
How do I let my colleagues know that maternity leave is not a vacation?
I don’t have to recite the dismal facts on maternity leave in the United States. Suffice it to say, almost every other country in the world acknowledges the importance of giving new mothers ample time to heal and bond with their babies before returning to work. These countries recognize that maternity leave is a necessity, not a luxury. Unfortunately, some of your co-workers might view a working mom’s maternity leave as an extended vacation. As a result, they might not give you much slack as you transition back to work. Worse yet, they might even harbor resentment about your “time off.”
Start by giving resentful colleagues the same empathy you’re hoping to receive. Your child-free co-workers (hopefully) aren’t trying to be snarky when they ask about your “vacation.” For most of them, understanding how difficult childbirth and those first few weeks at home with a newborn are is impossible. All they’ve seen is the highlight reel full of snuggles with a smiling baby on your social media. They don’t know about the sleepless nights, the diaper blowouts, not to mention the physical assault on your body. The only way they’ll know is if you tell them.
Keeping everyone’s comfort zones in mind, be honest about what you’re going through. Tell your colleagues, “I’m sorry if I’m a little off today. My baby is going through a sleep regression, and I was up every hour last night.” They may still expect you to work just as hard, but at least they’ll understand you’re also working a second shift at home that isn’t all smiles and snuggles.
How do I let my co-workers know I want to keep advancing at work as a working mom?
One reason the maternal wall exists is because people assume that once a woman becomes a mother, her dedication to her career diminishes. For some women, that may well be the case. Certainly most, if not all, working mothers would choose their children over their career if forced to decide. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to decide: We can do both. More importantly, many of us want to do both.
While your professional dedication should go without saying, explicitly stating it can’t hurt. This is especially true immediately after returning from maternity leave. In proactively reassuring your manager that you’re excited to return to work, you’ll also be assuaging your own concerns about balancing baby and business. After settling into your working mom groove, it’s still helpful to assure co-workers that you’re committed to your role. When people recognize your accomplishments, find ways to mention how being a working mom fueled the win. For example, maybe you unlocked a key insight at 2 a.m. when you were up with a sick child (and your child-free colleagues were snoozing). Sharing highlights like this lets your colleagues know that there are upsides to being a working mom.
How can I let my colleagues know I have to pump at work?
If you’re breastfeeding and work in an office for more than a few hours a day, you’ll need to pump. Your co-workers might not understand how physically painful it is to miss a pumping session. Because they haven’t experienced this themselves, your co-workers also won’t understand that pumping is more like strapping yourself to a torture machine than taking a luxurious coffee break. Rather than getting into the physical details of expressing milk at work, communicate this need by setting boundaries.
An ideal workplace will have a room that is dedicated to pumping mothers. In many offices, though, that room is a shared space that non-pumping co-workers can also use. In order to have your pumping time respected by your co-workers, you’ll first need to have the pumping space respected. With your company’s reservation policy in mind, consider putting a sign on the door indicating when you’ll need the room. You’ll want to block off more time than you actually need, in case you get a late or slow start. You should also ask HR to remind co-workers not to use the pumping room if they aren’t pumping. And get comfortable telling co-workers at the beginning of a meeting that you have a hard stop if you sense it might run into your pumping time.
How can I get my co-workers to stop rescheduling meetings?
No one likes when a meeting is rescheduled at the last minute. Meeting organizers should be extra mindful of the stress those changes can cause working parents. While last-minute changes are bound to happen, too many of them could wreak havoc on a working parent’s home life. Pushing a meeting later might mean you have to find someone else to pick up your child from daycare. Likewise, changing a meeting in the middle of the day could interfere with your need to pump.
Begin the conversation by acknowledging that some last-minute changes are unavoidable. This lets them know that you understand their perspective and want to work together on a solution. Then, share the “why” behind how important it is to you that meetings not get rescheduled. You don’t have to go into explicit detail, just a quick explanation that your daughter’s daycare closes at 6 p.m., or your son has a dentist appointment he can’t miss. Finally, ask them to alert you as early as possible if they are considering changing a meeting time or location. Hopefully, once they’re aware of your needs, they’ll be less likely to change meeting times or locations. At the very least, they’ll know why you couldn’t make it to the rescheduled meeting.
How can I let my co-workers know I’m working harder than they think?
To some people, seeing a colleague leave at 5 p.m. on the dot each day screams “lazy,” “unambitious” or “not dedicated.” As a working mom, however, it could be the only way you can spend quality time with your child before bedtime. Speaking of bedtime, many working parents log back on for hours every evening after they’ve put their kids to bed. Along with logging additional hours at home, parents also tend to work more efficiently.
Unfortunately, many working parents try to hide the fact that they leave earlier than the average employee or that they need a day off to care for a sick child. This can backfire, though. When people know why you’re doing something, they’re more likely to understand and support you. Trying to sneak out just opens the door for rumors and gossip about your dedication to the job.
Instead, proactively let colleagues know why you’re leaving and, importantly, when you’ll be back online. Or if you’ve set a boundary that you don’t work evenings, explain to them that the reason you’re “heads down” during the day isn’t because you’re antisocial, but because you’re trying to get as much work done as possible before you leave. By sharing your “why” as well as your “how,” co-workers will better grasp how hard you’re working, even if you aren’t in the office. Finally, take every opportunity you can to share your successes in a way that shows confidence without boasting.
How can I let my boss know that I need more flexibility as a working parent?
Everyone craves more flexibility at work (and they should, because it’s an effective productivity tool). As a working mom, flexibility isn’t just a want — it’s a necessity. At some point, your child will get sick or the backup childcare will fall through, and you’ll need to be there. There will also be times you might not need to be there, but you’ll really want to for important moments, like dropping your child off on their first day of school. Regardless of why you need flexibility, it’s important to communicate honestly and proactively.
Certain work interruptions can be anticipated, like the first day of school or your child’s wellness checkup. In these cases, it’s important to let your co-workers know of your planned absence as early as practicable. They’ll appreciate the heads up and be more likely to help brainstorm ways to account for your absence, if necessary.
There will also be cases where you’ll need to leave the office with little warning. For example, you might receive a call from daycare that your child has been injured. Informing a co-worker that you won’t be able to make the 3 p.m. meeting is probably the last thing on your mind. That’s totally fair. Don’t fret if you have to leave the office and forget to communicate in advance. Simply send a brief message that explains what happened, apologizes for any inconvenience your absence might have caused, and asks about important meeting takeaways.
Juggling parenthood and a career isn’t easy, but effective communication is guaranteed to make it easier. Share this article with your working mom friends to help them communicate what they need their co-workers to know. Bonus points if you share this article with your whole office!
Kelli Newman Mason is VP of People Operations at New Knowledge. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.