I know, it’s weird. I have no children. I have no pets. I don’t even have a plant. I am the literal definition of dependent-free. And yet, as a boss, I have developed a weird specialty in managing mothers.

I should perhaps frame this: for the past 11 years, I have worked in very female dominated areas, mostly of the public service. And, because I joined the PS in 2000 (aka post program review) when they were hiring like mad, I have been lucky to work with a lot of young women.

Now, I’ve been blessed over the years to manage dozens of mothers and mothers-to-be. And I’ve been sort of a surrogate management counsellor to dozens more, women who are referred to me by friends or employees of mine for advice and guidance because their boss said something totally inappropriate or was less than useful in helping them through going on mat leave or the thousand indignities of being a working mother.

You see, almost all of my female friends have kids. I’ve been there with them through their peeing on a stick (seriously? stop doing that in the damn office!), miscarriages, post -births (no dudes, I’m not going to a birth because that’s just wrong), first visits to the office, cracked nipples, milk production issues, babies who cry non-stop, babies who are constantly sick, returning to work when you’re not ready, more daycare woes than you can possibly imagine, the pain of drugging your kid so you can send him to daycare for at least 4 hours before they realize he has a fever, and then the torture of sending your kid to school.

Oddly enough, most of my friends have boys, so this last part is particularly hard for them. Over the years I’ve watched as my friends have gotten calls from the school about behaviour issues, had to trudge in to meet the teacher, then the principal, then the teacher, then get testing done. I’ve seen their guilt, I’ve heard them cry, I’ve hugged them when they just needed some comfort. I have a lot of opinions about the feminization of the school system these days.

I do a lot of career discussions with people across the PS. It’s in this area that I seem to have developed a specialty in mothers who are at a loss for what to do. You see, they started in the PS and thought “wow, careeeeeeeer!”. They moved up really quickly and then they had their first kid. And all of a sudden, their priorities changed. But no one told that to the other people they worked with who didn’t have kids, whose careers continued on an upward trajectory, who got turned to for special projects and cool assignments.

These mothers got sidelined, in part because we still don’t have great managers in this world, but also because they can’t be there 24/7. They need to drop their kid off (and in some cases pick their kid up) at daycare. They need to take the family leave. They need to take the sick leave. They use all of the leave available to them.

This one seems to be a sticking point for managers. If someone is away too frequently, they get sidelined. You can’t count on that employee. Right? But what is “too” frequently? What does it mean to sideline someone? And why is there no conversation between the employee and the manager about what that means and how to reframe work expectations?

Most importantly, women seem scared to talk to each other about how their motherhood or family situation has changed their career desires. Their mothers don’t say “it’s okay to be a really good [insert job title here] for however many years it takes to be ready for additional work responsibilities”. Their friends seem to have it all – great kid, great husband, great work – but they don’t see the cost.

I’ve had about 25 career conversations with people this year, all but three were with mothers of young children. I talked to them about their core values and what is not negotiable in a workplace. The actual content of the work is usually fairly irrelevant: people want good managers who understand the issues of parenting, limited after hours expectations, respect and trust in their teams. Some people want 4 day weeks, or flexible work arrangements, or the ability to work from home when they have a sick kid. Others want leave with income averaging so they can take the summer off to be with their kids.

These are wants, but they become core values when you’d walk away from a super sexy sounding job because it doesn’t offer that value. I had a friend turn down a job a few months ago because it wouldn’t allow her to work four days a week, something she considers to be critical to her relationship with her kids. That job was a permanent promotion, and she turned it down even knowing that it was likely she’d have to go back to a lower paying job that she didn’t like as a result. That four day work week is her core value.

One of my favourite parts about being an executive is working with people on their career paths. I can’t help you get a job – that’s something you have to do on your own. But, I can help you figure out what type of workplace you want and how to find it. I can challenge your list of wants until you come down to a small list of core values, and once you know what they are, everything else becomes easier to manage. You, the employee, become a partner in your workplace instead of a subordinate.

I may not have kids, or a pet, or a plant, but I know a lot of mothers and I see their daily struggles with working and parenting. It seems to be an insurmountable, neverending challenge.

I want to tell the mothers out there that there are managers and executives who understand. We might not live through it, but we understand. Come and talk to us when you’re confused. We’ll help you find your way, be it upwards on a career path, stable while you get comfortable, or taking a break because it’s what your family needs. All of these are legitimate options. You need to find what works for you.

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