Claire is a working mom. Despite having a supportive partner, she feels she isn’t doing as much as she could at home. And despite making weekly business trips away from her family, she feels she isn’t doing enough at work. She brings in the highest sales revenue in her office but feels too busy and unworthy to ask for a promotion.
“I feel like the biggest disservice women have done is not articulating how hard it is to be a mom. I didn’t get it before having kids. I was like, ‘How hard can it really be?’” — Claire
Claire cautiously admits that before she had children, she didn’t quite sympathize with her mom coworkers. But now, here she is, a mother herself who has undergone a radical transformation. Her values and priorities have shifted, and, most importantly, she now has a family that depends on her. She’s exhausted, overwhelmed, and at her limits but feels compelled to act as if nothing has changed at work.
We interviewed 13 working moms, and Claire’s tension was echoed by all of them: Working moms are doing invisible work at home and making invisible sacrifices for work that inadvertently prevent them from self-advocating for career growth.
When we re-entered the workforce after having children, we found living parallel lives of mom and employee emotionally turbulent and guilt-ridden. We constantly doubted ourselves and our careers. We both took an extreme measure and quit jobs we were passionate about at a company we loved.
But the researchers in us couldn’t shake the question: Why is it so hard to be a working mom?
We decided to interview moms with children under age five who work in a range of professions — spanning technology, education, and government — and for companies that include Google, Uber, Apple, and Airbnb. All the women in our study were white-collar workers in committed relationships living across the U.S. (We realize single parents and parents with lower incomes have it even harder, especially with the increasing costs of childcare, as Elizabeth Warren has addressed. We recognize we are in a privileged position, and we hope to advocate for parents across all socioeconomic backgrounds through future studies and work.)
We conducted interviews during our participants’ pump breaks, lunch breaks, commutes, evenings, and during our own children’s nap times. We attempted to synthesize during playdates and car trips, which gave new meaning to the term “multitasking.”
This isn’t another self-help piece for moms on “how to survive the workplace” or a “top five hacks for getting dinner on the table faster.” It’s an attempt to listen, empathize, and highlight the invisible work, sacrifices, and challenges moms face that ultimately add to the gender gaps in female leadership roles and salaries. While our most obvious reader will probably be a mom, we hope our findings help a caring manager, human resource employee, or company leader better understand and advocate for making the invisible more visible.
Doing Double Duty Between Work and Home
Even with the best of partners, moms take on a disproportionate amount of invisible work at home. It’s not surprising that becoming a parent is a life-altering event that comes with a hefty to-do list and shifting priorities. But even in households with extremely involved, well-intentioned fathers, moms are still doing more of the work while simultaneously assuming their partners are doing as much as they can.
According to a 2017 study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, “women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the household work.” Moms we interviewed disproportionately performed tasks such as childcare drop-off and pickup, scheduling and attending medical appointments, researching enrichment activities, and purchasing supplies and clothes. To their partners, much of this work is invisible. To their employers, this work is irrelevant.
“Even with a supportive partner, the biggest gotcha surprise was that as a mom, you are the manager of the household. Clothes, baby fed, nanny paid, dog walked, fridge stocked. Every day.”
— Allison, a small business owner
“He’s the best dad, but there are so many things he has no idea I do. He just thinks there’s magically always diapers and perfectly fitted, seasonal clothes.”
— Lexi, a vice president of operations
The responsibilities that fall on moms are time-consuming, emotionally expensive, and draw from a seemingly infinite yet always depleting energy bank. Even the simple event of getting out the door in the morning can become task-heavy and emotional. One participant, Michelle, a social worker, detailed some of the pressure she’s under:
Our morning routine: getting myself ready for work, getting them ready for school, making sure the lunches are packed, their teeth are brushed, they learn how to bring their own plate to the sink, and Robbie gets to practice putting on his own shoes, and we remember to go to the potty all in an hour and a half without snapping at them because I don’t want to be late and they don’t understand the concept of lateness. Those types of little parenting issues take a big toll on me. It’s trying to do all that while working.
Moms’ Invisible Sacrifices for Work
Family needs and work needs are often directly at odds. Fearing real or perceived setbacks at work, moms often discreetly put work above their own wishes for their families. Michelle, mentioned above, desperately wants to make it home for family dinners but is unable to because her responsibilities restrict her from leaving until after early evening hours. She wants to bring her administrative work home and complete it once her children are asleep but fears asking to do so will make her look less serious and committed and will ultimately harm her career growth.
Moms just like Michelle often make sacrifices to accommodate work in daily situations: reluctantly skipping a pumping session to attend a meeting, not being able to leave to care for an unpredictably sick child, and fulfilling extra work demands like traveling. Managers may not even realize the personal sacrifices moms are making because these decisions happen invisibly, gracefully, and quietly.
“My milk production went down pretty drastically, and that was really stressful for me… There are moments in the workday where I actually choose between what’s good for my body and my child and what’s good for my job.”
— Lisa, a deputy chief of staff
“One of the hardest things about working is not having the flexibility to immediately react to do what’s best for my family… Here’s an example: Right now, she’s sick, she looks terrible, she has a slight fever. The best thing for her would be to stay home with me today, but that’s not feasible. This morning, I did what all of the parents in my office talk about doing. I gave her Tylenol to hopefully keep the fever down long enough for her to go to school today. If it’s over 101, she can’t go to school for 24 hours. I can’t miss that much time off work this week.”
— Cary, a customer experience manager
“The trip was four days, so I didn’t have enough milk for the baby. I flew my mom in. It was so hard.”
— Rae, a senior analyst
Reluctance to Advocate for Career Growth
Most of the moms we talked with were not vying for a promotion at the time. In objective terms, this was baffling. These were the same moms we heard share stories of incredible sacrifice, devotion, and effort to their jobs. They gave up breastfeeding before they were ready because of work, they missed dinners with their children, and they came to work every day after giving emotional goodbyes and highly logistical drop-offs. These were also the same moms who noted that the financial compensation from work was more important than ever to support their families. But the act of explicitly “caring” to be promoted was seen as a burden.
Specifically, moms said they were uninterested in being promoted because they no longer had the patience for office politics, they lacked the time to advocate for themselves, they didn’t feel they deserved it because of their commitments outside of work, and the priorities they derived from work had changed. Once motivated by title and their place in the corporate hierarchy, they placed more importance on the work’s meaning.
“My objective isn’t to get promoted. At this point, it’s to do a good job in my role. I want to spend time with family and kids.”
— Jennifer, a director of strategy and operations
“I feel like I’m not as worthy as other people who don’t need to leave at 5:30.”
— Claire, a director of branding
At face value, managers may interpret their direct reports’ lack of self-advocacy as opting out of greater career opportunities or selecting the so-called “mommy track.” But considering the behind-the-scenes effort and priority moms place on their jobs, these moms’ intentions may be grossly misunderstood.
“Even though I need to put limits in place, I still want to achieve and will work hard… I’m still ambitious even though I’m not in the office 12 hours a day.”
— Stephanie, a data scientist
How Companies Could Benefit More from Moms
When women are overloaded with invisible work at home and making invisible sacrifices for work, they deprioritize advocating for career growth. As a result, they may be passed up for opportunities that would bring more fulfillment, challenge, and eventually leadership positions. At a glance, this could be interpreted as an issue that affects individuals: Claire should feel worthy of fighting for a promotion since she brings in the highest sales revenue on her team. But in taking a step back, Claire is part of a systemic problem. Women are disproportionately represented in leadership positions. Four in five C-suite leaders are men, and women are underrepresented in line roles at every level of the corporate pipeline. And women earn 4% less with each child they have.
By keeping moms employed and growing into leadership positions, companies benefit from attracting a more diverse workforce, which leads to greater innovation and creativity, lower turnover, easier recruitment, and capturing more of the market. Working moms have many superpowers that benefit their employers: Our participants said that after becoming a mom, they were more efficient, outspoken, and better able to prioritize. They had more perspective and were no longer sweating the small stuff.
There is no magic bullet that will adequately address all moms in all companies, but here are some guiding principles to make the invisible more visible:
- Acknowledge and understand how hard it is for moms to show up at work every day. Learning about a mom’s family and her daily routines can help managers get a better picture of their whole self, not just their work self.
- Create an environment where these topics are encouraged and discussed without penalty or judgment: What’s particularly challenging? What tradeoffs are moms making to do their jobs? How can you help them find fulfillment in their jobs and advance their careers at a pace that feels right to them?
- Make parenthood more visible so moms can show up as their true selves. Encourage all parents, especially those in leadership positions, to talk about how their family affects their work. Create or connect moms to venues for parents to talk about their children — and also inquire about their children and their lives outside of work as appropriate.
Thank you to all the moms who shared their stories with us. You are an inspiration to us all.
For our next study, we want to focus on actionable solutions and partner with a company that cares about supporting moms. If you’d like to work with us or share your thoughts, you can reach us firstname.lastname@example.org.