Why Are Companies Still So Inflexible With Working Mothers?

Filed under: Work Life, Opinions

Many years ago, I commuted every day, 45 minutes each way, to downtown Atlanta for my job. I was fortunate that I could afford to put my son in a top-notch day care facility, one that he and I both loved.

The day care had a very low ratio of babies to workers compared to most places, which is what drew me to the place. Every morning, I'd drop him off and he would happily sit on the braided rug and start drooling all over all the toys, and I'd happily head off to a job I enjoyed.

Evening picks-ups, on the other hand, were not so happy. In fact, they were a nightmare that still haunts me to this day. This center had a rule that every child had to be picked up by 6 p.m. No later.

There were more than a few days when I'd find out at 5:15 p.m., as I was ready to head out the door, that some vice president wanted to have a marketing meeting at 5:30. Only, I was supposed to be leaving, like, now, because it was my only hope of getting to my son in time.

I remember one day in particular when it was the chief marketing officer who wanted to meet me and a few others at 5:30 p.m. It's not often you get face time with the CMO of your giant consumer marketing corporation. As little miss "climb-the-corporate-ladder," you can imagine my excitement. Yet, I had to say no, because I had to get home. My husband was out of town, as usual, and I had to take off like a jet. Of course, I got stuck in traffic, and was late to pick him up. Not only had I missed the meeting, but I was a total Mom failure for picking my kid up last.

Every evening I would experience the same painful trade-off. Either I would miss out on an important meeting or I'd press my luck and leave much later than I should have, only to get stuck in traffic and sit on the highway sobbing because I was so worried I wouldn't get to my sweet boy in time. It felt like I was playing Russian roulette.

For years after I left that job, I still had nightmares that involved picking my child up from day care. I'd dream that I forgot to pick him up, or that I was at the office and looked at the clock to find it was already 8 p.m. I'd arrive at the center and he'd be gone, and I had no idea who to call or where to go to find him. I'd search and search and search until my brain couldn't take the stress and I'd wake up covered in sweat, having heart palpitations.

At the time, I wondered why it was so important to my company that everyone work in the same place at the same time. Why did we have to arrive no later than 9 a.m. and leave no earlier than 5 p.m.? Couldn't I work at home sometimes? Couldn't I come in earlier, and then leave a little earlier, but also work at night? Did it matter where I was, as long as the work I was doing was excellent and I was available for necessary meetings?

I saw so many women leave my company once they had children, because there was very little flexibility. Sure, you could do a job share program with another person, but that was effectively a career killer and everyone knew it.

I'm not the only one who has faced such inflexibility, or the pretense of flexibility when it really didn't exist. A post by mom and astrophysicist Susan Niebur on her Toddler Planet blog reminds me of the daily sacrifices and choices from which I suffered.

"When I faced the choice to stay and run the amazing Discovery Program of new NASA missions to explore the planets or be home before my kids' bedtime, I wavered. I explored my options, and, after a time, there were none. No one at NASA headquarters allowed regular telecommuting at the time, and no one allowed part-time work. I know. I called in all my chits and went to talk to everyone I knew, in offices from Astrophysics to Heliophysics to Planetary, the Chief Scientist's Office and staff positions, but there was nothing. No options. No way to stay at the job of my dreams and also work less than 40 hours a week -- 50 including commuting time -- away from my infant. No one could even understand why I would want to."


Niebur left her dreams behind to stay home, and says she doesn't regret her decision, but she still wonders "what if?"

I don't regret leaving my career, either, yet, I still don't understand why organizations make it so hard for women who have children to succeed.

I find myself asking why companies work so hard to hire and train women, but are so willing to let these accomplished women, now filled with so much institutional knowledge, go down the road.

Companies need women, whether in the boardroom or the office or the store or the wherever. We are smart. We have different perspectives. We are good at what we do.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.