How to Deflect the Doubled-Edged Sword as a Working Mom

How to Deflect the Doubled-Edged Sword as a Working Mom

Written By:

Lynn Whitbeck

As women make gains in the workplace, there remains a dreadful hypocrisy against being a working mom that women face almost every day. It’s a double-edged sword.

On one side, we navigate the path to be successful female leaders. On the other side, we must prevent our peers and managers from forming the perceptions that we prioritize our children over career. Women have an unwritten set of rules to follow on their climb to leadership roles and executive positions. These covenants are exponentially increased for us working moms.

Unwritten Rules

Let’s start with the more obvious double standard of emotions in the workplace. When men display anger in the office, it’s tolerated. But when a woman exhibits frustration, she is almost immediately labeled: “too emotional,” “hot-headed,” “antagonistic,” the list goes on – none of it good. Heaven forbid we ever cry at work. Rarely are we treated with compassion, even by our female co-workers.

Another unwritten belief is that women can’t be forceful and determined in our statements. When we do stand our ground and speak our minds, we are bossy and intractable. Or worse. The B-word is often used to describe women with gumption and the confidence to be heard in the workplace.

For working moms, talking about our kids on the job brands us as unfocused. This misguided perception is devoid of any rational measure of our accomplishments and efficiency. When a man talks about his kids, he is perceived as the proud dad or admired for his parental involvement. When a man leaves work early for a family activity versus a woman leaving, well, the difference is immense. Working moms immediately and unfairly earn the characterization of “clocking out to get home to the kids.”

Taking Action

Let us shift gears to reframe the narrative and take proactive steps. Every generation of women must continue to work toward achieving equality. We have the means to advance, breaking down barriers along the way.

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Leverage Humor

Keeping things bottled up only adds to our stress and dissatisfaction. It’s like microwaving a potato for too long: At some point it explodes and makes a hot mess.

Putting that in context at work translates to finding your voice and using it to your advantage. Affiliative humor is a proven pathway to addressing issues and obstacles you encounter. It helps bring people together while dissolving negative energy.

I used humor during the first meeting after my return from maternity leave. During my three months of leave, I continued to work from home. As a sales executive, it was imperative to maintain my client relationships as they were the sole source of my income. My sales never dipped during this time. At the first meeting back, our president startled me by stating that I was finally back at work. Unfair? Oh yeah. Was I ticked? You betcha. Did I let it slide? No way.

With a laugh and a smile on my face, I replied, “I’m glad to be back, and I bet our delivery guys will be thrilled that they no longer have to run materials back and forth to my home twice a day.”

This was a gentle way to stand my ground. That’s the beauty of affiliative humor – it unites us with a sense of fellowship. It enabled our president to save face and join in the laugh, while at the same time reminding him I was highly engaged with work. Humor is an effective leadership tool, especially for women as we push the boundaries.

Best Practice: Whenever taking any type of extended leave, stay connected to your company and industry. Make the time to have lunch every other week with a trusted co-worker or peer. Keep current with ongoing projects, initiative changes, and emerging trends. This will enable a quicker transition when you return to work.

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Shape the Prism

An effective way for working moms to manage the prism from which we are viewed is to eliminate sharenting. If you are wondering, “sharenting” is oversharing details about your children. In general, oversharing is inappropriate in the workplace, and women prone to TMI are viewed harshly.

To foster the habit of restraint when talking about personal matters, here’s a trick. Try adding a wide rubber band to your wrist. It should fit comfortably, and yet give you a good snap when pulled back and released. Every time you find yourself talking about anything not work related, give yourself a snap. It will remind you to pivot back to work.

Now, this does not mean I think you should become a soulless drone at work. You must bring your authentic self to work every day. However, minimizing personal topics and conversations helps you control how others perceive you. It allows you to frame your role and performance around merit and accomplishments. When you want to talk about the latest episode of The Morning Show or your son’s struggles to make the debate team, take a break and leave the office. Go for a 15-minute walk and call a friend, or ask a trusted co-worker to get a coffee and trade personal news while you grab your java.

Leaving on Time

Never announce that you are leaving work. Or make any kind of fuss. Set your reminders at least 30 minutes before you need to depart so you can wrap up your day and leave on time. I use “Project Review” in my shared calendar to block the time. Then, when the time arrives, I exit stage left.

We all experience the inevitable work crisis that rears its ugly head just before we need to leave. As working moms, we should allow a 15- to 30-minute emergency grace period to triage the situation. In fact, this is a best practice for all women.

The key here is to set boundaries. Quickly determine the level of urgency and what can be saved for the next business day, or passed to another co-worker. Be decisive, depart, and avoid saying you must leave to pick up your kids.  

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A significant point to keep in mind is that if you start bending the edges of what constitutes a crisis, you can fall into the doormat trap. Of course, in a true catastrophe, you need to have a back-up plan for your kids and flexibility to maneuver through the situation at work.

Make sure you have a contingency in place if your back-ups fail. Don’t have a plan? Make one now. Coping with this and a disaster at work will put your stress levels through the roof. You can’t think straight when you’re freaking out.

On the flip-side, you must have the ability to drop everything in a family emergency. Take the time to consider your options so you can put them into play if and when needed. It’s life, and things happen. I was at work when my mom called to tell me my dad had had a heart attack. Mom was falling apart, and I knew I had to leave right then and there. I called my co-worker from the road and let her know I would be out and needed her to cover for me. She stepped in as previously arranged and took over my projects at work. In turn, when her husband died unexpectedly, I was there to take care of her.

Empower Yourself

I have presented easy and reliable practices you can start now to deflect the double-edged sword of being a working mom. Using humor, maintaining laser focus, and framing perceptions are effective shields as you stay on track for leadership and executive roles.

While it remains a balancing act to re-write the rules, we can expand our career lanes as working moms. Keep pushing the boundaries in your career, creating opportunities for yourself and down the road for your daughters, too.

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