Monday, March 24, 2008

From Both Sides Now

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but it's not easy having moms in the workplace.

Before you start composing the hate mail, let me just remind you a little about me. I've been a working mom for more than 8 years. Since I've had my kids, thanks to an enlightened boss, I've enjoyed a variety of flexible work arrangements over the years from part time to flex time. I am a champion for work-life balance and flexible work arrangements for moms.

But I'm also a supervisor in a department dominated by young women. Our operations director informed me today that among our staff we've had 11 pregnancies in two years. Aside from the multiple doctors appointments and inevitable absences from pregnancy-related issues, each pregnancy brings 12 weeks -- the average maternity leave -- of doing without a valuable member of our team. This means divvying up the workload among the poor souls left behind in the office. And each maternity leave brings months of anxiety -- will she come back to us after she falls in love with that precious baby? And if she doesn't, it means months more of doing without a key staff person until we hire a replacement.

Sometimes pregnancies don't even enter the picture. Last weekend, one of my directors called me saying she had a tiny emergency (it's never good news when an employee calls on a weekend). She and her husband had been given a sudden opportunity to adopt a newborn baby boy. They had to fly off to the other side of the country and would be gone for two weeks to meet their new son and finalize the paperwork. After that, she'd likely take maternity leave. Knowing that this woman had been trying for several years to start a family, I was truly elated for her. But at the same time, the supervisor in me was thinking OH, CRAP!!! How in the world would we cover for her on such short notice? As we've scrambled in the last week to close ranks and get things under control in her absence, the silent prayer began -- oh, god, PLEASE let her come back!!!!

Among the moms who do come back, many want flexible arrangements. Some want to work part time while others want to work only from home and/or with a flexible schedule. We've tried very hard to accommodate each request, sometimes by swapping out job responsibilities or pairing up two new moms in a job sharing situation. But the solution always depends on the individuals involved and the quantity and nature of the work that needs to be covered at the time. As we've tried to figure it out, it's felt a bit like putting a puzzle together. And sometimes, unfortunately, those puzzle pieces don't always fit perfectly.

I'm very aware of how my own working mom status inevitably imposes on others. Last week when DD#1 had yet another bout of lice (Yes, I did say lice. Again. Don't even go there.), I had to ask a colleague to give a presentation for me at the last minute. Thankfully he was willing, able and gracious about it. But I'm sure he wasn't thrilled to be asked. My own flexible schedule (working from home two afternoons a week) isn't ideal as it limits my ability to be there for my staff or attend certain meetings. Doing meetings by phone works in a pinch, but it's not as productive as being in a room with someone, being able to look them in the eye and connecting with them on a personal level.

There's no doubt that making these sacrifices for moms is ultimately worth it. We have retained valuable employees as a result. I myself would have quit years ago had I not been afforded the flexibility I continue to have. Our extreme situation of having working moms as the majority of our staff has worked in our favor in that it has shown the non-moms the value of retaining reliable co-workers vs. having to start over with a newbie. But as a manager, I can see how in an environment where the working mom is the exception and not the norm, putting up with the challenges motherhood brings to the workplace and the impact it has on others may seem undesirable.

I see the challenges of working motherhood from both sides now. And it's both of those sides that we will have to acknowledge and address when we advocate for work-life balance and flexible work arrangements.


Deb - Mom of 3 Girls said...

It's wonderful that your workplace is so willing to work with moms and to accommodate them. I've always been the exception every place I've worked and it's hard when I know that I need flexibility that others don't. One more reason to feel guilty and pulled in different directions, I guess. It's good to know hear what my managers are most likely thinking and feeling - thanks for sharing your thoughts.

selfmademom said...

Thanks for writing such an honest post. It's a double edge sword because if you are a giving employer, your employee will give back in multiples. However, they'll need you to give too, and that's where it can get tricky and tough for a manager. I guess it's about getting the right mix and the right people to make it work as best as possible

PunditMom said...

I agree with Self-Made Mom -- it is refreshing to read a post with so much honesty. Now how do we get to the next stage to make things work for those, like you, who have to deal with these issues?

And sorry about the lice -- been there, done that. :(