Have you ever felt you had to hide the fact that you have kids when you’re at work?
I’ve been thinking about a comment Lily left on the blog about a week ago. Lily works in academia, where it sounds like it’s an open secret that being a parent is a professional liability. She wrote this:
I generally don’t talk too much about my kids in the work setting. A woman colleague mentioned to me that she didn’t realize that I had children until knowing me for over a year. She wasn’t married yet but said she could understand why I would omit references to family in the work setting…Very recently, a senior person, “Joe,” told me that he felt that my keeping references to children to a minimum was an “appropriate professional posture” to take.
Lily’s comment made me think about an argument I had when I was in grad school–I got my masters in journalism from UC Berkeley in 1999. One of my fellow students told me he had carefully scraped the Sierra Club bumper sticker off his car, and renounced his membership with that and all do-gooder type organizations. Why? He didn’t want to appear to have a bias when he started working for a newspaper.
I was appalled that he was willing to do this. I found the whole idea so de-humanizing. Don’t we all have a stake in having clean air to breathe, and clean water to drink? Don’t we all, no matter what our politics, benefit from having a beautiful, well-kept state park to visit on summer vacation? Do we really have to pretend not to have any skin in the game to be considered professional and “objective”?
Back to Lily. The pressure she feels to pretend she doesn’t have kids is very real. Experts say the “make it or break it” career years are between age 30 and 40. Unfortunately, these are the years when most many women* have their children.
In other words, the years we’re supposed to be putting in extra time to prove ourselves at work coincide with the years we are most likely to be pregnant, on maternity leave, sleep-deprived, and breastfeeding. It’s also when we are more likely to get sick and need to take time off to care for sick kids, attend parent-teacher conferences and other school events, and cover the random school holidays like Cesar Chavez Day and spring break. Not coincidentally, these are also the years when women in academia and other professions very often drop into the “second tier,” careers, the dreaded Mommy Track. They go part time and lose the coveted tenure track positions. 
So it follows that if you want to stay in the game, you pretend you don’t have these shamefully expensive, time-consuming habits named Betty and James. And if, (heaven forfend!), someone finds out you have children, well, just make it clear that someone else is taking care of them. You won’t let them create any actual demands on your time.
I’m lucky that I never felt the pressure to “pass” as a non-parent at my jobs, but I do know the pressure to compete with colleagues who seem to have a endless bounty of evening and weekend time to move their careers ahead.
I would like to offer the idea that all of us, parents and non-parents, have skin in the game. We all have vested interest in each other’s well-being. I’m even willing to bet that if we could all make room for our humanity in the workplace–whether it’s our membership in the Sierra Club or the parenting club–people would be happier and more productive and everyone would benefit.
 Mary Ann Mason & Eve Mason Ekman, “Mothers on the Fast Track” 2007
From pages 4-5: It is between ages thirty and forty that women change career direction. This is the decade which I call the “make-or-break” years, when women are most likely to drop into the second tier. The demands of a first job in the fast track male-dominated professions are daunting. This is the time when sixty- to eighty-hour work weeks are not uncommon, and when extreme flexibility, including moving or constant travel, is often a job requirement.
But for women, this probationary period also coincides with the decisive years for motherhood. Very few women have children after age forty….Mothers, but not fathers, will take some time out of the workplace, from a few months to a few years. They may hope to return to the fast track position they left, but most will fall into a second tier position.
* As my friend Kat pointed out, the average age women in the U.S. have their first child is 24.9 years old. It seems that this number has been going up over the last few decades, many of us put off having children until we’re established in our careers. Thanks for the correction, Kat!