As far as you know, I’m just a regular female professional, but what you may not realize is that I’m part of a rising demographic of working women in their 30s who remain childless by choice so as not to derail their slowly rising careers.
I won’t lie, I’ve caught myself at times looking differently at co-workers who were working moms when they established certain patterns: arriving late to work, abusing work-from-home policies, taking frequent extended lunch breaks, dashing out of or canceling meetings to leave early, dumping work on others so they could attend their children’s dance recitals.
But now, with my biological clock ticking and the societal pressure mounting on me to either start a family or freeze my eggs, it’s beginning to dawn on me that I may soon find myself in the same predicament I previously considered less than ideal.
So often we hear about the dissonance and even disdain between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, but has that chasm widened even further to include a more unexpected rift? I’m beginning to realize the more relevant albeit subtle divide among women exists within the confines of the workforce: between those who delay or forfeit childbearing and parenthood and those who have families and strive, successfully or otherwise, to “have it all.”
Lately, I’ve found myself asking the question: Am I, a married but childless female professional, a huge part of the problem? I bumped into an old friend the other day, who spent our entire 20-minute walk to the train - each of us clutching her 5-year-old daughter’s popsicle-soaked hands - telling me about her transition back into the workforce following her recent maternity leave stint. “I feel like I’m being judged all the time at work,” she said. “I feel less competent and confident than I have in a while, and it’s hard to shake it.”
Why, I asked. After all, she has been working at the same company for more than a decade, rising through the management ranks, and oversees a team of her own. “I’m the only woman on the team with children, and when I’m running 15 minutes late to work, everyone thinks I’m lazy or entitled. They don’t know I’ve been up since 5 a.m. feeding and bathing and getting my kids off to school or day care.”
I felt a tear welling up in my eye. I smiled. “Who gives a damn what they think?” I said. “You are killing it. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” (I realized later that I had cursed in front of the child.)
But was it hypocritical of me to throw a stone at her co-workers when I myself lived in a glass house?
Increasingly, I find the need to shift the conversation from a binary view of whether women either can or cannot have it all to a more complex and nuanced perspective where we, as women, begin to self-examine and dissect today’s workplace culture and how it at times can lead us to inadvertently judge and ostracize one another.
I’d hate to think that this, often passive-aggressive, behavior drives some women to drop out of the workforce altogether because they feel they cannot keep up.
If we, as women, cannot look with empathy and acknowledge the necessary steps working moms need to take to successfully balance work and life and find that ever-elusive equilibrium, then how can we possibly expect men to understand it?
Deanna Hartley is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.