The Motherhood Penalty: I Didn’t Beat It, But I’m Happy.

kids making noise and disturbing mom working at home

There’s only one way to avoid the motherhood penalty – the term for working mothers who face gender pay gap, stereotyping, and the status of “mother” versus “woman”. Just stop working. That’s the hard truth when you are a working mom. Believe me, I’ve considered quitting with every baby. I’ll let you in on a little secret though, being a happy and successful working mom is possible yet takes grit. I’m going to share with you how I’ve navigated through the wage gap, status of being a mother in the workplace, and the importance of mom/work balance.

The First Time Mom Wage Gap

The most heated topic when it comes to working mothers is the gender pay gap, especially when compared to working women without children and male counterparts. Throughout history women with children have made less money, received less career advancements, and are viewed as less committed to their work. Even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, men working remotely are getting raises at double the rate of working mothers. With remote learning and schools doing hybrid schedules, the working women take the hit and the wage gap, aka the motherhood penalty, has become even larger.  

There was a clear transition going from working without children to working with them.

I had my first baby over three years ago when I was a marketing manager for a corporate company. I was working full-time and would go straight to night school to finish an MBA program before getting home around ten or later. It was a terrible pregnancy and I didn’t know how I would make it through. Showing up to work every day feeling sick was unbearable, especially in the first trimester. For my own mental health, I asked to temporarily work remotely in the mornings.

The motherhood penalty hit me for the first time.

I finished my MBA program, had my first baby and returned back to work 4 months later, eager to get back. New faces joined the company including a good male friend in the finance department working toward an MBA which I already had completed – and while pregnant which is way more difficult! I learned he made over 10k more than I did before completing his schooling and he was requesting more when he finished. That was my next mistake. Why didn’t I ask for more? Secretly, I knew that I wasn’t performing as well as before I had children. My energy levels and interests were different and I didn’t think I could ask for more pay because my work ethic declined.

The motherhood penalty hit me for the second time.

Over the next year, my boss was laid off and I took over half of her responsibilities. I was clearly demonstrating my abilities yet I received no extra pay. When I found out I was expecting baby number 2, I felt great! Although stress lessened I was perceived to be less engaged by the executives in meetings. The assumption was that I didn’t care as much because I checked my phone and looked more relaxed. Clearly I knew how to not stress!

A new position opened up for a marketing director, the same position my boss was laid off from previously. Remember I had taken over half her responsibilities? It was the perfect career advancement after three years with the company. However, I was about to have another baby and as my supervisor mentioned, it’s just really poor timing for me to be considered. What a low blow and a serious example of the motherhood penalty. Unfortunately, I don’t think they would have given it to me anyway.

Set Expectations for Employers

Looking back, I never got that big raise, never moved up in the company, and hardly felt valued. I was paid less than others who had less experience and were male. Why? My theory – they watched me go through two pregnancies, ask for more flexible schedules to accommodate doctor appointments, children appointments and childcare accommodations. My attitude changed, I was more tired and became less passionate. And most importantly, I never asked for more money! Since, I’ve learned to set clear expectations on all fronts at the interview.

“I really can’t make any less than X.”

“I have young kids and need a flexible schedule and would really like to work these hours, and leave to pick up my child from school. Will this work for you?”

Clearly, I don’t have all the answers but there is one important thing I’ve learned as a working mom. Set expectations and let them know your family is important. If the employer can’t support you being a mother, they aren’t the right employer for you.

Additionally, this doesn’t mean your co-workers want to consistently hear about your kids. Keep your personal life personal and don’t talk about your kids all the time. (Hard when they are so much a part of your life, I know! And I’m a talker.)

Keep in mind that no matter what, if you are running children to doctor appointments or other kid-necessities, regardless of how “family friendly” a company it is, business is business. You will not appear as dedicated to your job as the women without children or male counterparts. And that’s just life.

Accepting this motherhood penalty is the first step.

Now, I set my expectations right from the start. We discuss pay, what I expect in order to to grow and stay with the company, and my desired schedule. I have kids and want to be the best mom for them. This requires setting my professional expectations from the start which will ultimately make me the best employee. I’m not scared anymore. Own your status with confidence. Yes, I am a mom but I am also a wife, sister, daughter, friend, employee. Remember, you have great skills and don’t ever let anyone make YOU believe you’re any less because you also have kids. 

Mom Status

Motherhood is a choice. Choosing to have children is viewed in the working world as choosing children over work. You didn’t have to have children but you did. Because of that, you’re discriminated against with the motherhood penalty. Embracing the mom bag and mom bod doesn’t help your status in the working world (own it anyway!). Despite what others may think, the good news, you can still hold a job and be a rockstar at work. Make it your goal to become close with the people you work with and show them your strengths, even if they’re different than your pre-mama strengths.

It’s only been a little over three years that I have worked with the mom status.

Every time I have been pregnant, I cry thinking I can’t make it to the end of pregnancy while working. “It’s just too hard,” I thought. But I did it. Then that special bonding time you get while on maternity leave is tiring…but amazing! Eventually you have to go back to work and you suddenly have new things to worry about that weren’t there before. Who is going to watch my child? I don’t want someone else raising him/her! I’ll never see them!

Employers don’t see this.

They don’t see the quality time you get with your children or struggles you have leaving them to go to work, even if you enjoy working. The worry about what they are learning, hearing, or doing is overwhelming. An entire day’s work is complete by morning in simply getting them up, dressed and ready all before walking into work. As a working mom, there are expectations. Showing up late, missing meetings or being distracted will be blamed on motherhood. It’s simply assumed.

THAT is the motherhood penalty and accepting it is the first step.

Learn not to care so much about perceptions and just do you. You’ll break the ceiling just by not allowing that motherhood penalty to define you.

Working Mom Life Balance

There is a lot we can’t control as working mothers. If there is anything you take away from reading this, remember to keep your priorities in check. Your job is important and so are your kids. Balance is the key and sometimes you have to remember what makes you truly happy in life. It can be challenging to balance life as a working mom.

Here’s a list to help keep yourself in check:

  • Do something for yourself, by yourself, every day (read, walk, exercise, bake, game, eat etc.)
  • Have a schedule for yourself and your kids, routine is everything
  • Assess your work effort level weekly, what went well and what you can do better at next week
  • Always communicate with your employers, care providers and children so everyone is on the same page. You will run late from work, or have to leave for appointments and every party feels affected in some way. Just communicate.
  • Are you distracted with screens (aka phones) when around your children outside of work? They feel it. Make sure the time you do have with them, especially as a working mom is focused on them and quality.
  • Sacrifices will have to happen. Dinner doesn’t need to be fancy.  (We eat a lot of protein waffles at our house and the kids love it! I don’t feel like a bad mom at all.) My house isn’t clean all the time, it’s cluttered most the week. We have at least one or two solid times a week that things get more organized. Laundry lives in clean and dirty baskets for everyone and I’m okay with that. They aren’t going to remember if your house was super clean all the time, especially with younger ones. They will remember spending time with you and that is what matters!

What I Love About Working as a Mom

I get a lot of questions from my “household engineer” friends about my life as a working mom. They claim they “don’t how they don’t know how I do it.” The truth is, I love that work reminds me and makes me feel like I myself. I get to interact with other adults and build connections with others outside my children. It makes me feel successful and I genuinely enjoy it. And the greatest part, I am more engaged and a better mother when I have had time away from them, even when that time away is work. One added benefit of working is that it provides a little extra financial freedom. We occasionally hire a cleaner to get the house back up to speed. I don’t worry as much about the motherhood penalty, the gender pay gap, or mom status anymore.

Yes, I will always worry about perceptions of my level of commitment when I have to “step out” for a sick child, or personal appointment. That doesn’t go away. However I am confident in my priorities and I accept it for what it is. I am much happier in knowing what matters most.

Author, Guest Blogger & Winey Mama contributor, Kim Mertlich

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