Women and Children First

Being Childless in a Family Friendly Workplace

Working Woman logoThis is a slightly altered version of an essay published under a pen name in Working Woman magazine

Women and Children First

I work at a Family Friendly corporation. We turn up on every magazine’s list of the best companies for women to work. My chain of command, on up to the E.V.P level, is all female. Women make up 60% of the workforce and 40% of management.  And in my particular  department, it’s the men who sometimes feel  short shrifted because of their gender. A decade ago, a company such as this, woman-friendly, with a stated policy supportive of family life, would have seemed to be a dream work environment. The reality is that it’s a decidedly mixed blessing – at least from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have children.

A little background: I had left a decidedly  un-woman friendly company on Wall Street  four years before joining this one, largely because of the annoying atmosphere of sexual harassment, the pay discrimination, and the lack of future prospects for women over thirty.  Because such conditions had existed to a greater or lesser degree at every company  I’d ever  worked for, I thought that striking out on my own as an independent consultant was the only  logical step for someone who wanted to stand or fall on the merits of her work, not on how she was perceived as a female by the men on top.

While as a consultant my professional skills flourished, the irregularity of my income stood in the way of the financial stability I needed to qualify for a mortgage. I also had been diagnosed with a chronic illness and needed comprehensive medical coverage unaffordable to a freelancer. The company at which I’d been consulting for over a year had about as livable a corporate culture as  I’d ever come across. At the previous several financial firms I’d worked for, the environments had ranged from back-stabbing to macho-aggressive to cut-throat to abusive. Here, on the other hand, was a company where the atmosphere, from my standpoint as a three-day a week outsider, could be best summed up by the word “benign.”

There was no sexual buzz in the air.  No flirting, no gossip or conjecture about affairs, no dirty jokes from the upper-level male managers, no women running around looking aggrieved.  No remarks like the one I’d heard at a meeting at my last job, emanating from a v.p. and directed at a female manager, “That’s something you would have understood before you were a mother, Karen.”

Here, women past the age of thirty continued to come in to work, without seeming to feel they were breaking some unwritten rule.  Several had children, some worked part-time.  That interested me as a worker with a health condition to manage, and also because I had creative projects, including a book under contract, that I wanted to continue devoting time to.

The floors were empty by five-thirty. None of that gratuitous stay-till-seven-thirty-every-night-for-appearance’s sake, whether there was really work to do or not. None of the atmosphere of hysteria and blame, the feeling that your job was on the line with every project or typo.

Here was a company I could live with, I thought.  Unfortunately, there were no permanent positions on offer in research, the area where I’d been consulting, but I was eagerly hired by a competing division, marketing. Sitting in a training room during my first morning’s orientation, I actually came across the phrase “Families First” while flipping through the welcome materials.

I assumed that a Families First work place offered benefits that would translate to all employees.  Little did I realize how literal this definition would prove to be.

I was in for a culture shock. On my first afternoon in my new job in my new division, my boss (mother of three) and a co-worker (mother of a six-month old) stood at the corner of my cube, in an ostensible show of bonhomie, and talked about formula.

Not the investment formula for our company’s well-performing variable annuities, but the infant kind. They stood there. And talked. And talked. For 20 minutes. About infant formula. I didn’t know what to say. I had nothing to add to the conversation. I didn’t have children.  They stood there, talking on, oblivious to my discomfort.  They seemed to be enjoying themselves. They probably thought they were being friendly.  I thought they were being more than a little rude.

My first assignment was to produce, with a co-worker, a short article. It was the kind of thing that, as a freelancer, I would have knocked off in under an hour. Being new and cautious, I let my co-worker, “Dawn”, take the lead. Her work method involved complaining about having been woken up by her baby son at 4 a.m., an event, she explained, which had rendered her unable to think or function that morning. We visited the office of the man for whom we were meant to produce the article.  Dawn proceeded to repeat to him the trials of trying to work on a broken night’s sleep.

To my amazement, the man was sympathetic. “The first year is the hardest …” he began. Another 20 minute discussion about the joys of parenthood ensued.

While I never thought I’d ever miss anything about the bad old days at my old firm, I soon found that when families come first, certain other quality of life issues at work suffer.

For example, I remember starting my first job on Wall Street twelve years before, being taken out, with the whole staff, to a seafood restaurant (wine served) at South Street Seaport. I got to know everyone, what they did, got some gossip-cum-company history, learned who to watch out for, and whom I could trust.

At my Family Friendly company, no superior has ever invited me out to lunch. No one has time to foster informal employee relations, when they’re cabbing it home to check up on some household emergency, or are on the phone constantly rejiggering their complicated domestic lives, or are out shopping at the local discount outlets, filling enormous shopping bags full of consumer goods for the little ones they constantly complain of not seeing enough of.

I spent one of my first lunch hours on such an excursion with Dawn, who stood  sighing in front of the baby toys. Look at me, she seemed to be saying, and the conflicted life I lead.  A little inquiring voice inside me, that has since been growing insistently louder with repeated exposure to such scenes, asked, Why don’t you just stay home? She had, after all, boasted to me of having a paid-in-full mortgage, and swanned into work each day sporting a mink coat.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that most women have to work — God knows I do. But Dawn had boasted to me her husband had a well-paying job. She employed two servants.  What was stopping her from being where her heart was? 

Sitting in a cube adjacent to her, I couldn’t help but notice that she spent at least twenty minutes out of every hour on the phone with child or babysitter. She certainly didn’t seem very interested in our work.

Why not stay home?  I knew what it was to make financial sacrifices in exchange for a happier, healthier lifestyle. With my health condition, I had no choice.

During my first week, my boss instructed me to ask another manager about some business courses I ought to take.Deborah waddled into her office, nine months pregnant, sour-faced, back-sore and visibly exhausted.  When I made the polite inquiries necessary for the execution of my job, she snapped, “I can’t deal with this. Ask me after I get back from maternity leave.”

These are not isolated incidents. Time after time, I’ve been confronted with the problematic relations of dealing with mothers who really ought to be home, who are in no shape to function at work. They can get their business clothes on and show up, but in many other respects they’re just not there. I and the other childless in the office grow weary of covering (with no extra compensation) for the mothers who fly out early every day, or greet us with, “Can you do this? I was up all night with my daughter …” 

And the requests are often made with the presumption that the obligations of parenthood are somehow morally superior to the wide range of outside life stresses that the rest of us may have to contend with, which in my department alone, have included but are not limited to major and chronic illnesses, divorce, care of aged and ailing parents, partners dying of HIV, mental illness in self or spouse, infertility, despair at being single and never having the chance to have a family, bankruptcy, alcoholism, drug addiction in a spouse or family of origin, being a victim of violent crime, and the unwarranted arrest of a family member.  But because none of these stresses can be discussed as blithely as the challenges of parenthood, no similar slack is granted.

Faced with a gap in babysitters once, Dawn asked her co-workers in turn what she should do for the three month interval. “If you’re that worried,” I suggested. “Why don’t you take a leave of absence? That’s what the Family and Medical Leave Act is for.”

“Oh, right.” Dawn said. “That would do my career a lot of good here.”

Entirely lost on her is the irony of the fact that she spends at least half of her time on the job here  reverse telecommuting  – as a housewife and mother.

There’s a double standard in operation here. If I spent half of my day on the job writing a book, then used the company printer during prime work hours, as some women confidently and thoughtlessly do to prepare multi-tiered memos to housekeepers encompassing everything from grocery lists to feeding schedules, I’d certainly hear about it.

 Another example: for a time I also sat adjacent to a young single woman whose busy social and dating life made for some interesting, but in my opinion, unimposing ambient noise.  A mother sitting next to her complained, and the young woman was reprimanded for spending too much time on personal calls.   When eventually a new hire, a young single man, was moved into the slot I’d vacated, he didn’t have to wonder long why I, with my seniority, had chosen to work in such a less glamorous, windowless cube far away from Dawn.

“Oh my God the noise is unbearable!” he said. “She talks all day long on the phone and it’s all personal.  I have to stay late to finish my work after she’s gone, it’s making me hate her …” Then I was sure again of my sanity, and relieved that I’d chosen to move, remembering how angry I’d been at the end of each day.

Like many women of my generation, I looked forward to developing a career as well as a family life, not simply to achieve financial independence, but to have a more interesting exostence than my mother. I’ll never forget the frustrated depression of so many women of my mother’s generation, who lamented the social tedium of life limited to home and children, conversations limited to Timmy’s ear infection and David’s toilet training. I’ve grown up and gone to work, only to find that the housewife mentality has simply migrated there.

Where I used to fend off the boss’s advances, now I fend off boredom.  While it was annoying being constantly propositioned, it’s equally offensive to have people turn their back on you, at a loss for conversation, when you answer negatively to the first question anyone is likely to ask you at a family friendly company: “Do you have children?”

I want to stress that behavior as bad as Dawn’s is not universal, but it’s common enough, and is disconcerting. Not only because it confirms negative stereotypes of women’s ability to function professionally, but because it undermines efforts at possible benefits for all employees.

Lots of people at my company, for example, would like to telecommute part-time, for reasons ranging from commuter burnout to health stresses to the desire to work in a quiet environment, free of ambient noise. Currently, our company’s policy is highly restricted, and no wonder. If some working mothers demonstrate that they can’t focus on their work when they’re actually at the office, what are the chances that they’ll even remember that they have a job when they’re at home?

When families come first at work, those without them often feel short-changed socially. I’ve seen every party and work gathering deteriorate into minutiae-level discussions on child-rearing.  Single and childless people don’t feel free to speak up much about their personal lives, because in our family values milieu, discussions of dating are out of place, unless they can be seen to be leading towards marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m glad that I’m here. I’m glad that I never have to worry about knocking before opening the door to the supply closet, for fear I’ll stumble on a couple of co-workers in a compromising position. I’m glad that I don’t have to worry that, rushing absent-mindedly into a superior’s office at 5 :30 p.m. to get his sign-off on something, I’ll find a female colleague seated on his lap. I don’t miss those days.

I am a feminist. The last thing I want to do is blame mothers for needing to, or even wanting to work. I hope to be a mother myself very soon.

I wish we lived in a country with a lengthy and generous maternity policy, where one could stay home for the first crucial six months or year of a child’s life, or take the last few months of a pregnancy off with impunity. After all, even farm animals are excused from their labors in the final weeks before giving birth.

It’s not fair to women when society pretends that pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood rearing are private problems that don’t merit the public support that other special needs life stages do. Kindly corporations like the one I work for can try to fill the gap with Family Friendly policies, but to me the Families First workplace is a highly imperfect compromise. It fails to acknowledge that parenthood, and in particular early motherhood, are demanding jobs in themselves.