A personal take on the motherhood penalty

There's having to take time off for parental leave. There's not always being able to stay for networking after work. There's having to stay home when your kid is sick. And the list goes on and on why becoming a parent means sometimes not being able to be at work or working. However, it is still the case that for mothers this compromises their career more than for fathers, resulting in less pay and an overall perception of being less competent: an issue called the motherhood penalty, which was also highlighted when Gina Baucom asked for examples of crappy things that are being said to women academics the other day.

The other day I got a bit more insight into why this could be on a level I hadn't considered yet. Someone I know had her second kid about a 1,5 year ago and the first time year had been quite a struggle: she was tired, also moved to a different house and at the same time was making a huge effort to perform at the same level she did previously. This nearly resulted in a burn out, except that she had a very kind and caring manager who sent her home at just the right time and told her to take it easier. At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise.

After this first year, she started to feel like her normal self again: more sleep, normal hormone levels, etc. However, at the same time she noticed that her manager still treated her like the more fragile person who needed help and protection. Her manager would not give her the more challenging projects even though she was very capable of taking those on again. And ultimately her male colleague who had been there shorter got a promotion and she didn't. Seemingly because her manager could not get rid of the notion they had of her being weak. She felt that not only did she have to fight to get back into all her projects, she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person. 

I'm not sure there is an answer here in how to navigate this path, but I'd be curious to hear what you would advice here, dear readers!

7 responses so far

  • I don't know that my strategy would help anyone but I took my parenthood hit before going out on maternity leave (less of a raise because they "had to pay for coverage") and then budgets were shaky for long enough that it's possible that my not asking for one in the first two years after JuggerBaby was born wasn't really a parental thing. But it probably was. Still, I retained my position and authority basically by being strategic and faking it. And I should note it was only possible because we put zero value in the notion of facetime in my only company. I rarely gave a child related for missing or skipping a meeting - I did it maybe about 6 times a year. It didn't mean I only had 6 instances of inconvenience, the truth was that I had a full year of it. But most of the time I'd claim it was me under the weather (which wasn't untrue anyway) and leave out the fact that the baby was also home sick. The reason this worked was that I continued to carry my workload, even if it was at odd times, so it didn't raise a question of my competence or strength. I operated on the assumption that I could and would get it done, and if I couldn't, the reasons weren't relevant so much as finding a way to get it down (asking for a spot of help, etc)

    It's similar to the details in that article of how men basically get away with a flex schedule - or don't go part time. They just act on the assumption that stepping away is fine and they do so without making any fanfare about it. I operated on the assumption that as long as I met the minimum (as defined by my pretty strict standards) on crucial things, I'd fit in other things as necessary. It's worked fine thus far - I haven't lost any authority or flexibility, I still have decisionmaking power like before, and have gained some responsibilities since.

    I wish my route was more generalizable, but more likely just parts of it are. I'm not sure, I have a somewhat unique employer/set up.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. Personally I try to become less apologetic about not being able to physically be somewhere if I know that I'm putting in my effort and time (or even if I'm not able to put in effort and/or time for the time being).

  • xykademiqz says:

    There's definitely the "don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness if caught" aspect that men seem to naturally espouse, while women always feel like they need to ask the powers that be for permission. I remember a woman who wanted to go part time at my (academic) work because she felt she wasn't putting in the 60+ hours she was "supposed" to; another senior woman told her that the perception is worse than the reality, that in reality she'd still be working around 40 hours if not more, and that should really be enough for a full-time paycheck; that by going part-time people would perceive her as working far less than she actually did and would penalize her for it. So in the end the woman just scaled back her workload without reporting anything, and nothing happened. No one said anything, if anyone even noticed. Eventually she was back to working at full throttle.

  • Anon says:

    "At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise."

    I don't know that I have the answer, but it sounds like maybe your acquaintance got into trouble because she let her manager see her in her weakened state. I wonder if it would have been better for her to just ask for the time off she needed up front. Sure, sometimes the "ask for forgiveness not permission" gambit works, but it can have disastrous consequences, too. That's the other side of the coin.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yes I think this is where the dilemma lies: do you openly talk about it when you're having an off-day (or week, or month), allowing people to help you, or do you keep it to yourself and suffer in silence? Because doing the latter might be better in this respect... but at the same time I think there's strength in showing your vulnerability and allowing people around you to help you when you might need it. But it sucks when that then backfires in the long run...

  • Ecologist says:

    I am impressed with the story and have made a mental note to be careful of falling into the trap that this manager apparently did (I do manage a few people).

    But my advice comes from being struck by a very strange disconnect in the story. Your colleague had a very kind and caring manager, who was perceptive enough to recognize just the right time to send her home and to take care of herself. That sounds like the kind of manager we all might like to have.

    So my advice is, talk to the manager. Have a conversation that goes something like this "Thank you for your support when I was burned out. It was so helpful, and I feel really happy to be back. I'm concerned that maybe you still see me as being fragile or weak, because you kept me away from that challenging XYZ project [or some other specific issues]. I am back, I'm feeling in top shape, and I would love to be challenged like the XYZ project would. I'm really happy to be working for someone who takes care of their employees like you do. I'm ready for whatever needs to be done. Bring it on! "

    If this manager is as caring and perceptive as you describe, it seems like this conversation would be welcomed. It's just communication. You say of your friend that "she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person." Starting with communication might mean that it wouldn't be a fight at all. Or at least not a double hard fight.

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