Don’t Be a Secret Mom: Why It’s Not a Good Idea to Hide Our Status As a Parent at Work

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It didn’t strike me as odd until a few years later, after I had a toddler and a baby of my own in tow.  But when I was a relatively new associate at small but established Connecticut firm, I worked with a law student who was there for the summer who actively tried to hide the fact that she had children.  How do I know this?  I knew she had kids, but I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to know about them.  The conversation actually took place during her last week of work, when we took her out to lunch to wish her good luck.  It went something like this:

Me:     So is it fun having kids?

Summer Associate:     Um … oh … erm, how did you know I had kids?

Me:     Uh– (I honestly couldn’t remember how I knew) I think [Other Associate] mentioned it when you started here?

[I glance awkwardly at Other Associate.  Other Associate looks at us and gives a half-shrug.]

Summer Associate:     Oh, wow.  [Mumbles something about the carseat.]  Well, yeah, I mean I don’t let them interfere with work or anything.  I’m focused on school and everything I have learned here this summer is so valuable …

Me:     Oh . . . Um, right.

[Everyone awkwardly resumes eating lunch.]

Ok, so I will correct what I said at the beginning.  This conversation did, indeed, strike me as odd, in that it seemed obvious to me that this student was in fact a mother.  It’s weird that I still don’t recall how I knew, but, as Marie once put it, her mom was showing.  There was an aura of mom about her, and the fact that she was a bit older than the average third-year law student probably helped solidify any impression I had that she indeed was a mom.  I also found it strange that she was shocked that I knew.  Although at that time I had zero experience with children, I always felt like I knew what a mom looked like.  Looking back now, that’s a really silly thing to say, but let’s just agree for the sake of argument that this woman looked the part in my mind.  So naturally, I found it odd that she even thought it possible to hide her mom-ness from the rest of the world, at least during the work day.

That noise?  Oh, just some indigestion from lunch!
That noise? Oh, just some indigestion from lunch! [image credit]
Sadly, what did not strike me as odd at the time was that a woman in her 30’s with young children would even think it necessary to hide her status as a parent from her coworkers.  I’m not talking about refraining from bringing up the subject during the job interview, where it would be inappropriate for the employer to ask, illegal to consider in making a hiring decision, and both irrelevant and unwise for the prospective employee to discuss.  And I’m also not talking about limiting your conversations to non-parenting topics out of consideration for your childless coworkers — no one at work cares about your kid putting poopies in the potty but you.  (But we at CT Working Moms do.  Really.  Please share your stories about this with me, especially since I’m experiencing the joys of potty training a two-year-old right now.)

But I digress —  What was so very sad about Summer Associate’s shock and embarrassment about her mom showing is just that:  shock and embarrassment.  And what was so very sad about ME and my reaction to said shock and embarrassment is that it didn’t surprise me.  Well, it did, for a blip in time.  But right away I got what she was saying — that her status as a mom meant that she didn’t quite fit the typical law school mold of “young associate,” and that she was purposely hiding her parenthood from the legal job world for fear that it would become a liability for her career — and then I allowed the subject to be changed.  I didn’t say, for example, “I think it’s great that you have kids and that you’re a role model for them by starting a second career,” or “It’s really important that working moms are supported in the law firm environment, and I salute you!”  Instead, I politely coughed and continued with my cobb salad.  I ate and went back to work, and I realize now that instead of supporting this mom, I was just feeling thankful that I didn’t have the “problem” of kids to get in the way of my fledgling career.

Law student moms, I am here to tell you that if you don’t acknowledge and take pride in who you are, as a parent and as an attorney and as all of your other selves, you will not only be miserable in the legal work environment, but you will miss a huge opportunity to make things better for the women (and men) who come after you.  The reason we have (still woefully inadequate) laws that protect us from discrimination in the workplace due to our sex, marital status, and choice to reproduce is that parents have spoken up about their value in the workforce and demanded such protections.  But this goes far beyond simple laws.  I’m talking about eradicating the stereotypes that moms just can’t do it — that they are so disheveled, so distracted, and so naturally inclined to want to put their children first that of course they will do a crap job at work, and therefore don’t deserve that raise, or promotion, or training and development.  I’m also talking about innovating new workplace standards for ourselves that improve things for employees AND for their companies — because after all, happy employees are loyal, productive employees, and loyal, productive employees make profits soar.

Of course, when it comes to innovation, some lawyer moms will wake up, smell the coffee brewing deliciously in their own kitchen, and innovate themselves right out of the traditional workplace and partnership track.  That happens to be what I’m doing right now — working from home, for myself, leaving behind my chances at partnership, having long ago left that firm where I worked with Summer Associate Mom.  But whether you let your mom flag fly as a law firm associate, or as in-house counsel or at a public sector job, or whether you take on the life of a solo like me, I believe it is possible for us all to rally under one cause:  we are proud working moms, we are awesome attorneys, and we need to show the world that we ROCK at being both.  Some of us will shoot up the partnership track and find the traditional trappings of success, while some of us will define success for ourselves, whether that means finding alternative work arrangements or taking time away from the practice, because that is our choice.  But no matter what, we should not be afraid to let our mom show at work.  We owe it to ourselves, our kids, and future generations of new attorneys to acknowledge and support Summer Associate Mom.

 

5 comments on “Don’t Be a Secret Mom: Why It’s Not a Good Idea to Hide Our Status As a Parent at Work”

  1. I had my first child after my first year of law school, and although my career has been in the government and non-profit sector, I feel like it has been an advantage to me in any many ways (albeit very challenging, frustrating, etc at other times) to be a mom in the workplace. It gives me something in common with some of the older people I work with and lends me an air of maturity that I wouldn’t otherwise have since I look particularly young. Everyone wants to talk about their kids, and they are more likely to do that when they know that you are a mom, too. In fact, my current boss has a new baby, and I have a 5 & 8 year old, so he often asks me whether my kids did such and such or if something is normal.

    My only real negative experience around it was with a woman who had no kids and was past the age of have children, who I think felt uncomfortable or annoyed by my being open about having children. Though I am probably being egocentric in my analysis of her, I imagined that it came from her own possible regrets or sadness about not having children – I have no idea if it was by choice or circumstance. I also made the stupid mistake of mentioning my kids in an interview with her, thinking that it was likely she had her own so it would give us something in common, but I picked the wrong person to do that with and learned a valuable lesson. Her semi-defensive sounding response was that her dogs are her kids.

    1. Hi Pamela! I agree with you on the air of maturity. People perceive you as possessing a certain level of relative maturity when you have children, and it’s certainly true that the shift in priorities (I have a tiny human depending on me now!) has a ripple effect on the way we conduct ourselves at work and in the greater community. We know that, as parents, it’s not our intention to leave non-parents out of the conversation when we forge those bonds with each other; but it’s definitely true that we risk alienating non-parents when we make even the most innocent comments about our kids or children in general. With that said, I don’t always get why people without kids react uncomfortably or with annoyance when their coworkers, or friends or even Facebook acquaintances, are open about having children, as you put it — that is to say, simply open about it, as opposed to bringing it up every chance they get. I remember hearing someone say how annoying it was to see all the pictures of their friends’ kids on Facebook all the time. But my feeling is, why? If you put up a ton of pictures of you and your friends at the bar every weekend, you wouldn’t expect me to say “you know, that’s really annoying, I don’t need to see that.” Because no one needs to see anything on Facebook if they don’t want to – that’s what the Hide function in the Newsfeed, or even de-friending, is for.

      But anyway, back to your experience. Yes, I think that’s why in most cases it’s just better to not mention kids during an interview, as opposed to on the job. You may be right about her having regrets or sadness, or it could just be that she doesn’t like children and never wanted them, or some combination of those things. I have so been there with the semi-defensive or passive-aggressive comments about having pets as kids. So not the same … but of course you can’t say that out loud, LOL.

      1. Just curious if you watch Parenthood and if so what’s your take on the whole Julia supermom superlawyer turned I can’t do it all I quit development….
        Unrelated, I think people genuinely don’t realize how not the same dogs and kids are until/unless they have kids, too.
        Also unrelated, so agree and love your opinion about the whole facebook thing.

      2. Stephie, I don’t watch the show, sorry! I spend way too much time online, instead. 😛 But I consider the fact that this is a sitcom storyline to be a sign of the widespread familiarity of this phenomenon. It makes for good TV because people can relate.

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