On Mother’s Day, my thoughts always go to my wonderful Mom who raised five children, worked as a housekeeper, and is a community volunteer and a devoted friend. Yet somehow she always found time to keep the cookie jar full of homemade treats—a tradition that continues today, as she lavishes love on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
And of course, I think about all the other working mothers who juggle family and careers and the changes we need to see to make their lives easier and help them achieve the career success they want: parental leave; quality, affordable childcare; workplace flexibility; and partners who fully share the workload at home.
I also think about the women who aren’t mothers, like me.
I was asked “the question” at a work event the other day. I’ve been asked it dozens of times. It never seems to get easier to answer. “Do you have children?” When I say “no,” I am generally met with “oh…,” then somewhat awkward silence. Occasionally someone will say something to the effect that this must make managing my busy job and schedule easier. What they seem to suggest is that I have chosen work over family. And whether it’s intended or not, it always feels like there is judgment attached to that sentiment. I usually try to smile, respond politely, and shift the conversation quickly to other topics. But there are times when I summon my courage and tell the truth.
Six months after I got married I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I was an older first-time bride, my husband and I had planned to start a family as quickly as possible. Cancer changed that. After getting a clean bill of health, we began a series of unsuccessful fertility treatments that raised and then crushed my dreams of being a mother. When I have the courage to answer honestly, it makes me and the person I’m speaking with uncomfortable. But the truth often is.
I never ask this question of other women, because I know that I could be speaking to someone who has faced the same challenges I have. Or someone who has recently suffered a miscarriage or lost a child and is just hanging on. I certainly don’t mean that there is no place for personal conversation about kids and family at work. Personal connections are critical to creating a sense of belonging. But if you want to make small talk with a stranger, start by mentioning your own children. The person you are speaking to will pretty quickly talk about his or her own kids. And if this person doesn’t, you can safely bet it’s something he or she doesn’t want to talk about.
Part of this is also about assumptions. Our society often assumes that all women want to be mothers and that work is the only legitimate reason we would choose not to have children. This view is narrow, outdated, and just plain wrong. And it perpetuates the damaging myth that women can’t have a successful career and be good parents. It also fails to recognize that the reasons women make this choice (or have it taken from them) are as different and valid as women themselves. Not being a mother doesn’t make us lesser women. And dropping assumptions and judgments will help move us towards a more inclusive definition of what it means to be women, and all the expectations attached to that.
So this Mother’s Day, my hope is that we stop asking this question. As my Mom used to say, “You never know what’s on the flip side of the pancake.” Our collective gift to one another can be renewed empathy and a wonderfully inclusive and diverse definition of what it means to be a woman, free from the traditional assumptions and expectations that collectively hold us back at home and at work.