Avoiding the mommy track

Different people react to parenthood different ways. Some new moms (and dads) want to dial things down professionally for a while. But others do not. Maybe they were on the fast track before and would like to stay on it. Others realize that kids are expensive and it would behoove them to get serious about landing that promotion (with the bigger paychecks).

Women in particular find that many people assume they’d choose Option A. If they’re not staying home with their kids, people assume they’d like to, and so clearly they don’t want to pursue work that involves a lot of responsibility or (the horror!) travel. This assumption may not be voiced, but it is an assumption all the same, and a new mom may find that she isn’t even offered an assignment that would involve travel, or that sometimes features longer or unpredictable hours. Without even wanting it, she’s found herself Mommy Tracked.

Is it possible to avoid this? A little over a week ago, I asked for suggestions from readers, and people responded in the comments here, and a number of people emailed me as well. You can read the Verily article I wrote about the topic here.

There were a lot of great suggestions, but perhaps the most straightforward is to tell people that you would like to have more responsibility, and would like to have leadership opportunities. When you come back from maternity leave, everyone will be figuring things out, so that’s a great time to meet with a manager and discuss a timeline for getting promoted. Other higher-ups can be managed too. Everyone likes being asked for advice, so approaching people with questions like “I really see myself here long term. I admire your career. What advice can you give me about planning my progression?” can turn doubters into mentors.

I find that women are often hesitant about voicing ambitions in general. There may be some logical reticence here; ambition in women is often viewed more negatively than in men. But there’s a problem with this too. Failing to voice an ambition while still harboring it amounts to waiting like Cinderella to be picked by your prince. Somebody is not just going to magically decide you should be a partner at your firm because you’ve been cleaning the fireplace diligently while making friends with the mice. If you want to make it, you need people advocating for you and making sure you are seen. They probably won’t spend that capital on you if they don’t think you care.

I got some great advice from Cheryl Bachelder about navigating this dilemma: boldness in women works best when it is seen as boldness on behalf of the team. You want to advance because you have great ideas, and the more influence you have the more ideas you can implement to make your company profitable (or to achieve your organization’s mission). So frame your ambitions in those terms.

Of course, being mentally present for work, and being able to travel or work longer hours on occasion, requires having a good support system at home. But that’s certainly achievable. Women who want to stay on the fast track approach that as a logistics problem to be solved, rather than starting from the assumption that no one can have it all.

Have you voiced your ambitions at work?

Photo: Blooming in the garden now

10 thoughts on “Avoiding the mommy track

  1. Good post Laura
    I am actually a stay at home mother both by choice and by circumstances but in my previous jobs I know that puting yourself forward, especially when others were hesitating and especially if it helped one of the more senior people get out of a jam definitely helped me get ahead.
    One thing I notice now….at least in Ireland (where Im from but dont currently live) is that its exactly as you say – even for mothers who dont stay at home, its presumed that they would rather stay at home. I know a couple of working mothers who always sort of downplay their jobs and imply that obviously theyd love to stay at home but cant. But I know in their cases its not true. I know that they really like their jobs (which is brilliant) and I know that actually with a few tweeks here and there they are in the financial position where they could stay at home (but dont want to and thats absolutely fine). In Ireland right now its almost as if you must stay in the work force if youre a mother but you must never let on that you like it and you must always say that obviously youd stay at home if you could but you must never actually stay at home because thats not acceptable either.
    And honestly I dont know where this attitude is coming from…is it women…is it men…is it just in the air…but it would be great if people just proudly owned their choices. As a stay at home mother Im working on doing this…because even I have a tendancy depending on who Im talking to, to say Im a stay at home mom and then sort of quickly insert that I used to have a very good job and will surely return to work….and when I do I’ll no doubt tell people that I have to and I dont like it and would much rather stay at home! Ha ha!

    1. @Carol – I don’t know if it’s men, women, both, or just in the air. But yes, this is the default assumption. Any woman who can afford it will stay home. If one wants to, that’s a perfectly fine choice — as you’re doing. But plenty of women decide they have other things they wish to do too.

  2. I think some of it comes from other women because there is immense pressure on mothers to make the right choice. We question so much of what we do and hope so dearly that our choice is the correct one that we feel guilty with either. Working moms (truthfully, show me a mom who’s not a “working mom.”) sometimes feel guilt that they enjoy the time they spend away from their children. I know I do. I love them dearly, but I need my work for personal satisfaction. But with that choice there is often guilt that if I were a better mom I would want to be with them all day. So sometimes I downplay the importance of my job to others.
    Just me anyway.

    1. Oh man, I’m a stay-at-home mom and I’d like to have more time away from my kids. 🙂 Even as a SAHM somewhat by choice — aspiring writer, did not enjoy my last job outside the home. That job let me take my baby to work with me, which was good and bad. Amazing financially, but when I was able to get other child care I really enjoyed the breaks, if not the job itself!

      And it isn’t just the breaks (man, kids are intense and SO MUCH sometimes), it’s the personal fulfillment, like you’re saying. I get it. Fathers can be good fathers and still enjoy their other work too, I wish we didn’t expect differently from ourselves/mothers.

  3. I work part-time outside the home, and my employer gives me tremendous flexibility when it comes to transporting my kids to/from their activities. However, with each reorganization and load of fresh faces it’s getting more difficult/exhausting to be bold and assertive.

    Recently I was told, “Oh, so you’re a hockey mom,” when I needed to leave for my kid’s training. “Actually, I’m a hockey coach and team manager with 30 players expecting me to be on time to lead their training.” Yes, one of the reasons I do it is because of my daughter and son, but the bigger reason is that it’s letting me try out leadership skills that I’m not getting or using at my paying job.

  4. Great post and great article too. I’ve been thinking over it today, and I think the biggest change I’ve experienced professionally as a mom is an increased ability to focus on high value activities at work. And I think this started at home – questioning the value of various housekeeping activities like you so often promote doing.

  5. I train a lot of young staff and one of the first things I ask them to do is to start thinking about where they want to be in their career (skills, promotions, etc) in a few years, and talk to me about those thoughts so we could discuss a plan to make it happen. I tell them this is because I want them to practice being clear about their goals and speaking them aloud to the person who helps make those decisions.

    But conversely, because I’m more experienced in my industry, I don’t typically have that conversation with my own bosses. I take the reins, aim for what I want, do the work at a high level and check back that I’ve properly assessed the situation partway through. I’ve almost always done so, and even when I haven’t quite nailed it, the fact that I took charge and tried solutions first instead of asking usually reminds my bosses of my worth.

    I find also that my personal preferences on travel and so on are only moderately changed by my motherhood status so there wasn’t that much change from my need to preserve my energy before.

  6. Here’s the approach I took, and I admit it can’t be done by everyone–I told almost no one about my pregnancy and about the birth of my son. I’m a freelance writer and I work with clients I typically don’t meet IRL (in real life, as if the Internet isn’t real, ha ha). So I got away with it for the most part.

    I met with one prospective client who said they were replacing a freelancer who quit to go on maternity leave–while I was pregnant myself. I had a work opportunity come up that involved travel and confirmed the airline and hotel info from the hospital shortly before my son was born, then went on the first post-parenthood work trip about two months later.

    If anyone asks if I have kids, I’m happy to talk about my baby. But otherwise, I don’t mention it. I’m trying in my own way to avoid the “motherhood penalty” as much as possible. It’s interesting to me how easy working online makes this. Of course, if I had to drive to an office every day, it’d be a lot harder to do.

  7. Hi Laura,

    I’d love to see you revisit this article with a pandemic lense. I always thought I would be eager to grow my career more once I finished having kids. My youngest was born in May 2019. March 2020 has shifted my priorities in the short to medium term as I prioritize being present for myself, my daughters and husband over career advancement. But I also struggle with wanting to take more of a leadership role in my organization to play a larger part in tackling the challenges we collectively face.

    I wonder your thoughts on this balance and the trade offs.

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