What It’s Like To Be Childfree Working With Mothers

Shutterstock photo by Lisa S.

Discrimination in the workplace is a common issue many women without children face. Children seems to be the trump card, which aces everything else. None of the things you might want to do as a childfree woman could possibly be as important as being a parent. If you don’t have children, it’s assumed that you don’t have anything better to do than stay at work.

The following short story is an excerpt from my childfree memoir: “Do I have to be a mother? — A childfree woman’s honest and unspoken thoughts and feelings”.

My workplace reminded me above all of a chicken coop without a rooster. My female colleagues always came blazing in the door in the morning, and today was no exception. The days at the office all blended into one. The hens clucked “good morning”, and soon we all sat two by two, in nice rows.

One morning I heard steps in the corridor. I immediately recognized the sound of the clacking booties of Dina, the dramatic single mother of two chicks, as they struck the floor in rushed steps. I waited anxiously to hear today’s excuse. She often arrived late.

“Good morning. I just had to stop by the kids’ after-school center on the way. Frank forgot to give them their lunch boxes, as usual. And he also forgot their rain jackets. They’re going on a hike in the woods this afternoon”, explained a panting Dina.

“He’s also a dork”, clucked Elisa with her smiling beak, while she dreamed of having a new flock of offspring with her boyfriend, Allan, who often took care of her two children during the week, because she had started studying accounting and economics at night school. Elisa was also divorced, and had lived alone with her two children, until Allan, her neighbor, fell in love with her.

“That guy is also a bogus father”, declared cheerful Mona, shaking her head. Mona was always in good spirits and readily released her raucous laughter, often infecting the rest of us.

Dina fetched some deodorant from her handbag. She was too hurried to go into the ladies’ room, instead quickly sticking the deodorant in under her blouse in front of the others’ dumbstruck eyes. She made a duck mouth and was going to put on some bright red lipstick just as our boss, Chicken Thief Henry, raced through the room. He blushed at the sight of Dina. The hens giggled, and Dina straightened out her bosom, a little coquettishly smoothing her blouse into place. We all laughed, especially Elisa and Mona, who couldn’t stop. Elisa had to wipe the tears from her eyes, before rushing off to a meeting with the Chicken Thief. He was married to dominant Dorrit, who had worked in the chicken coop, before I was hired.

“It was so obvious that he was in love with her!” recounted dramatic Dina eagerly. “When Henry began to court Dorrit, she transferred to another department.”

The Chicken Thief had never tried to dampen our cackling.

Dina continued:

“Henry is under her thumb at home, now that Dorrit is expecting their first chick.”

I had indeed noticed that the Chicken Thief looked so much in love, and joyous anticipation shined in his eyes when he beheld his very pregnant Dorrit. It sounded as though Dina yearned for a man who would look at her with such love. I also dreamt of such a man, but a pregnant belly said nothing at all to me.

A little past noon, Mona’s phone rang. Her eldest son was sick and had to be picked up. We were busy. She knew that her husband was also very busy at work, so called the in-laws, of course. They could certainly go to her house and meet the boy when the handicap bus dropped him off, and stay with him until she came home. Great. She stood up and went into the neighboring department.

“It’s amazing that she can keep her good mood”, said the normally enthusiastic Elisa, impressed.

“Yeah, it must be hard having a boy who can’t speak or walk, even though he will soon be in kindergarten”, added the office’s sweet elder hen, Rosa, who was thrice divorced and had given up trying to live with a man.

“Now that my daughter is disabled, I’m glad that she’s got Down syndrome. They are so happy and loving”, Elisa explained.

The cheerful hen came back.

“Aren’t you looking forward to having grandchildren”, she asked toward Rosa, who was old enough to be the mother of all of us. “We couldn’t get through the work week in one piece without grandparents!”

“My daughter is almost 40. I don’t think I will be having grandchildren”, explained the sweet, elderly hen.

“She can still manage”, said Elisa in an encouraging tone.

“It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t have children. Just as long as she’s doing well”, Rosa replied quietly, but her tone indicated that although she had accepted her daughter’s choice, she had not entirely reconciled herself with the idea of not having grandchildren.

“Be glad, Karin, that you will become a grown hen. The feelings overwhelm you, in the moment you give birth”, exclaimed Elisa, with a mother’s love shining in her eyes. “A child’s love is worth all the effort!”

While I was thinking about what I to say, Dina picked up the thread.

“Children are the meaning of life.” Her weary eyes smiled as she snuck a quick peek at the clock.

The mothers continued cackling about the joy of motherhood. They had no need whatsoever to hear my opinion. I kept quiet and listened. Maybe I was cynical, but I couldn’t help but think of how their focus on motherhood affected their relationships. Did their children make them happier than their husbands and boyfriends? Who slept beside them in the double bed?

“Your sex life will never be the same after you’ve had kids.” The dry comment came from realistic Rita, who often made do with observing and rarely participated in the others’ endless chatter.

My thoughts and observations were apparently not completely wrong. Rita always worked seriously and with concentration. She was also a graduate of Copenhagen Business School. I knew that she was happy with her husband and two children, even though she didn’t talk so much about them. Rita had evidently succeeded at juggling her education, career and nuclear family.

All of a sudden Elisa realized she had forgot that her study group would be meeting that night. Her son needed a ride to football. She called Allan. He was used to being the practical one, and said he would make sure that the son got to football.

“Adam is so totally great for your kids!”, exclaimed Dina.

“And he is not even the kids’ father”, added Mona appreciatively. Elisa basked in their admiration, before leaving the chicken coop to retrieve a special data list, we ourselves could not make.

“It’s only because she has Allan that she can get that education”, said Dina, in a tone that revealed that she, too, would like to undertake the same studies.

“Yeah, but it’s a shame for the kids. They look more to Allan than to their mother”, said Rosa, just before Elisa re-entered the chicken coop with no data list.

“The data list has to be set up in the IT system first. It doesn’t exist yet”, Elisa announced.

Shortly afterwards, the door opened and dutiful Pia from the IT department came in and delivered the desired data list for Elisa and quickly left our hen house again. She had her own cage across the hall. The door had hardly closed behind Pia before Elisa said:

“She’s an odd one; do you think she’s a lesbian?”

The feathers arose instantly on the other hens.

“She must be single, since she has never talked about boyfriends”, added Dina, continuing: “She hasn’t left home, either, but lives upstairs in her parents’ house. That’s a little weird. She’s almost 40.”

“In any case, she doesn’t have any kids. She told me that herself”, explained Elisa.

“Maybe she hasn’t found the right guy yet”, said Rosa, with understanding.

“In the department next door, I heard that she is suffering from unrequited love of a rooster.” Mona always knew what was going on.

“Anyway, she is certainly good at making the data lists we need to make our work a lot easier”, I noted, while wondering why Pia’s personal life was so interesting to the others. None of us knew her. She worked as a consultant, who could help us take best advantage of the IT system.

Early in the afternoon, Dina took a quick glance at her watch.

“I’m gonna have to go now; otherwise, I won’t make it to pick up the girls”, she apologized, quickly packing her things together.

“Are you finished with what I’ll need tomorrow?” Elisa kindly asked.

“No. I’ll take it home and finish it tonight, when I get home from parents’ meeting”, replied Dina on the fly and scooted out the door. Of course, everyone understood that she had to pick up the kids. It was a flexible chicken coop.

My work was done for the day, and I, too, began to pack up. Mona raised her eyebrows from her work, soberly looked at me and asked:

“Are you going now?”

“Yes”, I replied.

Mona knew that I didn’t have to go to class at Copenhagen Business School that evening.

“Where are you going?”

“Home.”

On the way out I noticed that dutiful Pia from the IT department was still working in her cage. She had shown up early, before I did, but had spent most of her working day making data lists for Elisa and the Chicken Thief. Now she had peace to do her real work.

This was my first experience of how motherhood creates tension in the workplace. It took place around the year 2000. Reading articles like the brutal truth about being childless at work and contemporary experiences of unspoken inequality of other women without children made me realize that nothing has changed. The out-of-office lives of mothers are still seen to have greater significance than childfree women’s. It’s impossible to argue that your life outside work is as important as the need of a small child. It shouldn’t be assumed a woman without a child has nothing of significance in her life beyond work.

The emerging pattern that single women are expected to work longer hours and are given less flexibility than their female colleagues with children is not fair. Everyone needs time away from their desks to do the things that give their life meaning. We deserve acknowledgement that our lives outside of office matter, too. The question is: What can we do to change the perception that being a parent is the only significant thing a woman can do when she is not working?

Originally published at Childfreewoman.com on 2nd of April 2017.