Mum’s the Word: Keeping Quiet on the Homefront to Avoid Professional Discrimination

It’s around 8pm and I’m beat. Beyond beat. In fact, I’m so beat I’m forcibly having to drag my slippered and jammie-clad carcass around the house to turn off the lights and lock doors – and this is when Joel calls. Joel is one of my longest standing clients and a guy I’ve come to admire and genuinely like over the years.

 

 

He’s straight to the question.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had kids?”

I’m silent. It’s taking me a minute to unpack what he’s asking.

“You’ve met my wife, right?”he says. “My kids?”

This I can answer. “Yes.”

“So how come I never knew you even had kids? I mean, you just had a baby!”

This call is beginning to give me the same sickening feeling I used to get when my Dad called and I was out past curfew with my friends. Where is this coming from?

He answers my question before I can ask. “I found you on Facebook.”

Up to this point, Joel had been fairly disinterested in the Internet and vehemently anti-social media – so anti-social media that he hired me to manage his home-based fitness business’ social media presence. I’m still absorbing this revelation when he goes on.

“Three kids, no less. This means that during the time you’ve been working with me, there were three times you were pregnant for nine months. Three times you gave birth and must have needed or wanted a week or month off, and you never took it. You never even mentioned it to me.”

Joel and I have met in person periodically, but most of our communication is done via text, email or phone calls. So his not seeing me pregnant is completely plausible. His not seeing me pregnant is actually more than completely plausible; it’s been preferable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never refused to meet a client while pregnant. I’ve even been known to bring a baby to a meeting if I couldn’t avoid it. But if I can avoid it, I will.

I’ll avoid it because I’ve wanted to avoid any negative assumptions about my ability to do my job. If I can’t do a meeting because I have to get my kids from school or I’m taking the baby to the doctor, I don’t say that: I say I have something else scheduled. It’s not a lie. The reason I can’t is also none of anyone’s business because it doesn’t affect my ability to do my business. Clients still have their deadlines met, earths shattered, and minds blown. My kids still have their lunches bagged, princess dresses mended and Stegosaurus fished out of the toilet. All in a day’s work.

I’ve been in my field for over a decade, and I’ve been pregnant and/or raising small children for five of those years. Some of my clients actually do know this; these are usually the clients who’ve outright asked if I have children, and I can’t actually say any of them have expressed concern, or anything but their casual interest in my family’s well-being. Still, I don’t make it a point of conversation. So why?

Because even though I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience it first-hand, I know discrimination exists. Women who are pregnant or have families – particularly young families – are often undermined oroverlooked professionally, no matter how talented or qualified they are. (Even though studies show that women with kids are more productive than…well, everyone.)

But Joel’s upset, and my shame-faced reaction to his agitation is making it clear to me that in this case, ‘the man’ is not the problem; I am.  By worrying about what people think a woman is capable of doing professionally simply because she is also a mother, I am contributing to the prejudice I am trying to escape. My silence on the subject of my children is saying I have something to hide. Worst of all, while unintentional, it implies the prejudice is right.

And it’s not.

In many cases, my family status simply won’t come up. I have one client whose essays I’ve edited from her undergraduate degree until now, as she finishes up her doctoral dissertation. She doesn’t know I have kids, but that’s not the vibe we have. I’ve never met her in person, and while we cordially inquire as to one another’s health, we don’t get personal.

But Joel is different. I have met his wife.  have met his kids. He knows I love running, marshmallows and the Golden Girls. He knows the scar on my eyebrow is from when I opened a car door into my face after racing my brother for the front seat of the car. When I was 20 years old. He knows I won’t do chin ups anymore – no matter how much he goads me – because I feel I’m going to pee myself.

But I didn’t tell him this has only happened since having children. He’s right: I haven’t said a word about my children at all and there have been plenty of openings where this information would have been welcome.

I say, “I’m sorry, Joel.” And I mean it. I’ve been evasive when I should have been true to our vibe. No, his not knowing I had kids didn’t impact the quality of my work, but it did affect his assessment of our relationship – and good business is all about building and nurturing relationships. Up to that point, Joel thought we were on the same page.

“Really, Joel,” I say again. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“It’s OK,” Joel cuts in, and laughs. “I mean…you know…I would’ve sent you a gift basket or something.”