ROOM’s VP Workspace Design & Strategy Alejandra Albarran pens a note to the working world on behalf of working mothers.
I became a mom at a very young age. I was still in college and lived in Mexico City. So, I started my professional life early on as a mother. This made me very aware of the challenges young mothers have in a world where work comes first, and where not having a good support system is a common reality.
Parents, but most commonly mothers, usually find themselves at a crossroads between being a “good mother” and being a “great worker”. As a society, we have very strong preconceptions of what these titles mean. The “good mother” is the one who is solely devoted to her children and her home; she prioritizes her role as a mother above everything else. She is always present and always available to care for her children. She will never be late to pick up her kids from school, she will attend every recital, accompany her kids to every party and every after school activity, she will help with homework, cook healthy and nutritious meals, and most importantly be present, patient and understanding. On the other hand, the “ideal worker” will never skip a beat, she is always available, rarely takes time away from work, she answers any email or request instantly, she is in every meeting and almost always in person, and works late hours including weekends.
The reality is that most women who are also moms are torn between these two ideals trying to juggle both at the same time and giving their absolute best effort. Working mothers sacrifice many things including self care just to be able to fulfill these roles, if only half of the way. Honestly, it is impossible to measure ourselves to these standards that are ideologically incompatible. It doesn’t matter how much effort we put in and how much we try, we always feel guilty for not accomplishing these unattainable goals.
As a workspace strategist, designer, and a mom, I am constantly striving to find ways to support mothers at work. I believe there are simple ways for companies to make mothers feel represented and understood.
The first one would be to offer more flexibility. Post-COVID most workers want more flexibility in their schedule and the ability to work remotely. Allowing this flexibility is especially important for mothers who now have the opportunity to manage their schedules in relation to their children’s schedules and their needs at home. Working from home a few days a week can give mothers the capacity to be more present in their children’s lives and more involved in their everyday activities, alleviating the sense of guilt we feel when we haven’t seen our children for a full work week. Company leaders should make mothers feel supported when they request flexibility. Coworkers will play a role too by making their colleagues feel understood and leaving behind judgemental preconceptions.
Our workspaces can also support mothers while at work because motherhood doesn’t end when we step foot inside the office. Providing a thoughtful, dedicated, well-designed mother’s room, instead of a poorly adapted room for lactating mothers shows how supportive a company is. Normalizing being a mom at work is important. A workspace with mothers in mind will have soundproof spaces for private video calls with their children, doctors or teachers. Mothers should feel allowed to take personal calls in the middle of the day to check-in with their kids or answer the phone in case of an emergency.
Another great way to support mothers and parenting is to offer parental leave for both parents. In Europe, women receive on average 20 weeks of paid maternity leave, and in Canada up to 61 weeks. In the US the average is 12 weeks. Increasing paid maternity leave would give mothers more time to get used to their new reality and go back to work when they are ready, instead of rushing back. Increasing the length of paid paternity leave would also help unburden moms who could split the time with their partners.
There is a cultural element we need to consider as well, and that is the stigma we have placed as a society on parental leave. The reality is that most dads will not take their parental leave for fear of losing status or being seen as weak at their workplace. We need to start normalizing parental leave and removing the negative connotations attached to it. Company leaders should not just offer parental leave but encourage both parents to take the time-off without hesitation.
Another great way businesses can support parents is by offering childcare support of some kind. Most parents can’t afford daycare, or it will cost them a big part of their monthly income. As an example, Columbia University offers a program for affordable childcare for all their faculty members and staff at a fraction of the cost of any other privately run child care institutions. Or even better, work with local governments to ensure free childcare for this age group as part of the public school system, allowing mothers to work and support the economy.
“It takes a village to raise a child”. This is true in today’s world too. We are all responsible for protecting the very important roles we all play. Mothers are the first educators and the primary agents for empowering individuals that can transform a society. It will take a lot of work to get to a point where motherhood is a normal part of work life, where the balance between the two doesn’t come at such a high cost for moms. Working mothers need and deserve more flexibility, better benefits and stronger support networks that include their peers and leaders.