It’s Hard Out There for a Working Mom

This piece made the rounds last week. In it, Katharine Zaleski apologized for the condescension and outright disdain she showed towards her coworkers who were working mothers.  Her apology might have been more tolerable if it had come before she herself became a mother and realized that gee, it’s hard out there for working moms.  Zaleski has seen the error of her ways and is co-founder of a company that seeks to match women with work-at-home tech jobs.  Her piece rubbed me the wrong way because of her privilege that eased her decision to lean in or lean out.  The majority of women don’t have C-level positions at start-ups coming their way.  At the very least, I hope I wasn’t nearly the asshole she was to working moms in her office before I had kids.  And really, that’s the crux of it.  Was it really so difficult for her to attempt a modicum of empathy for those women? Was it really that impossible for her to think that maybe she might have kids someday and how would she like to be treated in the workplace?

One of the best responses to Zaleski’s piece was adamant in her refusal to accept the non-apology.  Anne Born notes that being a working mom would have been more bearable if just one person had backed her up or spoken up as she received comments and side eyes doubting her work ethic. By not extending any support, no matter how small,  women like Zaleski became just “one of the guys.”  And Born is writing about what she experienced in 1997, a time not that long ago. She concludes:

I worked with too many women like you, Ms. Zaleski, who reinforced that I was just a lesser version of the other women I worked with who did not have such tedious family obligations. Working women are worth less enough already without your help – or your apologies.

Sometimes I think that with all the media coverage of “leaning in” and telecommuting, we think that it is easier to be a working mom than ever before. This topic has been on my mind a lot, especially since in NC, children missed almost 2 full weeks of school due to snow and sleet in February and for many working parents, that time must be made up or vacation used.  Working from home is not permitted in all workplaces.

The truth is that it is still very hard to be a mom who works outside the home. It’s even more difficult if you need further accommodations.  I think that there is a perception that daycare and programs like after-school care make it easy to work 8-5 if you are a working mother. That’s true if everything goes to plan, but what I and several other women I know have learned, it is as fragile as a house of cards.

  • Think of the mother whose child qualifies for one of the few free preschool options available in NC. The problem is that while these preschools end when the school day ends, after-school care is not available for these students. The mother will need to leave work at 3:30 to transport her child to some other program so she is able to return to work in order to fulfill the hours she is expected to work. The logical answer would be to let her telecommute but sadly, her position classification makes that option unavailable. She also cannot take her lunch hour at that time because OSHA rules dictate that she take a break after 6 hours of work.
  • After-school care is a godsend, but imagine if you are a mother whose child cannot cope in the school-sanctioned program.  Maybe the child is acting out or just not coping well and on the verge of being expelled.  Maybe the mother can hire a student to transport her child home and stay with the child until after work or maybe, if she’s lucky, she finds an alternative program that will pick up her child from school and take her to a program that is more suited to the child’s needs.  While this mother will be relieved to find any option that works to keep her child safe and engaged while she fulfills her expected hours, these options cost money, likely more money than the school-sanctioned after-school program. These are also options that are likely more available in larger cities than smaller ones. What would be the answer for the mother who lives in a small town?
  • Maybe your child is in a small school that is perfect for your child’s needs, and your child is thriving, but the after-school program goes only to 4 PM.  Maybe in this case you have the ability to make up some of the missed hours, but you live in fear of a meeting being scheduled late afternoon and any hint that you might not be a dedicated employee who deserves the responsibility she has been given. You worry that coworkers view you as Zaleski viewed her coworkers who had children.

It is easy to say that these women should find other jobs that are more flexible, but the reality is that many workplaces are less flexible than you imagine.  After all, even Yahoo rescinded its telecommuting policy.  I work for the state and while there are drawbacks to being a state employee (flexibility being one), it has decent health insurance, paid time off and security. It is also one of the largest employers in my state. It isn’t that simple to go get a new job, especially when children are involved.

I applaud Zaleski for her epiphany (even if it is infuriatingly late for those women she worked with prior to having her own child) and her effort to make things better for working women through her new company. The problem is that her company will help only a small subset of working women: those with in-demand technical skills. What about the rest?  What about the factory worker or hourly office worker who finds herself walking a tight rope of child care and praying that the few options that exist will work for her family? What about those women for whom telecommuting is not allowed? What about women who have children with special needs or needs that mainstream programs cannot support but who still need to or want to work?

We still have a lot of work to do to help mothers succeed in the workforce.




  1. I really appreciate this post, especially as we try to figure out how we’re going to get two different kids to two different places next year when my inflexible schedule keeps me away in the mornings. Also, we only have one car, and we want to stay a one car family but sometimes the system makes that impossible. It really is difficult for working moms, and I really appreciate that people are talking about all the subtly complex issues that make it difficult. Thank you for continuing the much needed conversation.

  2. Great post. I also thought her post was offensive in that she completely ignored the issue of fathers. Childcare and work/life balance issues should be people problems, not women’s problems. It shouldn’t have to be women who race the clock to pick up before the after care program closes, or women who skip out of afternoon meetings. If men were also able to prioritize the needs of their families, women would have more options.

  3. This especially hits home as I’m about to take 10 days off for Miss E’s surgery. I am considered lucky to have the choice of deciding whether to take it unpaid or whether to take “vacation” and make up at some other point this year the 65 billalble hours I’ll get behind. It’s maddening.

  4. *applauding* … my kids have had lots of delayed openings this year, and in some ways, that’s been even more challenging than a snow day, because by the time I’d get to work, the day would be half over … might as well take the full day. My job can’t really BE accommodating (because my students live at work), so we are trying to move closer. My husband has taken the brunt of the late starts this year, and they haven’t exactly been understanding. It’s a complicated issue, and not just for the “day care” aged kids, but for school agers who can’t yet be left alone, and who are also expected to somehow get homework done and be taken to after school activities during the hours that working parents are still at work. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Yes to your response. #1 stood out for me in particular — “I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her “commitment” even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.” It is sad and WRONG that going out for drinks with the guys (or other ways of spending non-work time with colleagues) is seen as a reflection of commitment.

  6. It frustrates the pants off me that we don’t take working families seriously. In our town, the after-school programs close at 5:30pm (almost all in-home daycares close at 5pm) and before school care starts at 7am. If I work an 8-4:30 job in the city an hour away, it is nearly impossible to make the commute and sit at a desk those hours. If I work a pharmacist job, I’m scheduled 8-4 with some time before and after in most community pharmacies and 6 or 7 until 3 or 4 in most hospital day jobs so those hours for childcare are a nightmare.

    I also agree that it’s SO INFURIATING that we talk about “women’s issues” when this is about families. Yes, it matters that employers and especially other women not be jerks to women who are moms but it also matters that we remember most families with two parents have two working parents. It’s a team effort and everyone is hurt by no paid leave/sick time, limited childcare availability let alone high quality childcare, and goofy expectations that work happens only in the office during a certain time. I had an interview recently where I was interviewed by someone on the phone who was home with a sick child and I was so glad that worked and everyone was flexible enough to make it work. I hope we extend that same courtesy to as many employees as we can in the near future.

  7. Excellent post! I think my son has had one week (until this one) of school since before the holiday break. The snow days were killing me with trying to get work done and both my husband and I had to take some time off. I only work part-time (because of the huge demand of previous jobs feeling impossible for me once my son was born) and I really struggle with finding time each week to get my hours in. For the women that work full-time with very little flexibility, I really feel for them. Companies need to realize the benefit of supporting its workers with more options for sure. Glad to have read this today and thank you!

  8. I keep meaning to read “Lean In” to make the judgement for myself, but what little experience I have so far in shuffling two kids around with two full-time working parents makes me think it’s total B.S. For me to “lean in”, my DH’s career will suffer. I have a relatively flexible job in that I’m allowed to telecommute, I mostly work independently, so that’s easy. I have paid time off, and I have good benefits. It’s not enough. It’s never enough. You know what would be enough right now? Working 30 hours a week and getting paid for 40. That’ll never happen.

    p.s. I’m gonna come back, I know I will. 😉

  9. We have a lot of work to do. I cannot begin to articulate how lucky we are that I have a grad students flexibility, and decent childcare, and a husband who makes it possible to live on 1.5 incomes. I come from a place of great privilege and it makes me angry that it is a much much harder fight for most.
    I’m reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, and this passage struck me and I think is related to this post. “Interestingly, in terms of shame triggers for women, motherhood is a close second. And (Bonus!) you don’t have to be a mother to experience mother shame. Society views womanhood and motherhood as inextricably bound; therefore our value as women is often determined by where we are in relation to our roles as mothers or potential mothers.”
    Society makes it so that women can’t win because if we don’t have children we are worthless and if we do have children and ask for work accommodations we are not committed to our jobs. And yet when Rob has to take off to get the kids (we are very lucky he has the flexibility to leave early for daycare pick up when I am teaching) it was at first ok’d because I couldn’t. Not that it should be his responsibility. (Now his work just assumes and accepts that childcare is part of it even on days where I technically could).
    I’ve been thinking about this post a lot over the last few weeks. It’s taken too long to comment.
    And also doing a book post, soon, maybe.

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