We’ll soon be celebrating Mother’s Day, acknowledging the contributions of mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, and mother figures in our lives. On this day, I also like to think of all the working mothers like myself.
I first put pen to paper on this blog the week before the New York Times published “Women did Everything Right, then Work got Greedy.” 1 Reading it, I felt a wave of relief. Finally, someone was actively discussing the interplay between white-collar work expectations, gender roles, and families. The piece, well worth the read, outlines how, as white-collar work continues to reward over-working, two parents can’t possibly sustain the work schedule required to advance. As a result, equally empowered and educated women are often taking a back seat for the sake of the family and their partner’s career.
Unfortunately, culture does not bend as quickly as policy, and despite taking on greater and greater economic responsibilities,2 women are entering the workforce with the same level of domestic expectations and responsibilities. In the U.S., we see domestic labor still disproportionately falling to women and mothers. In Japan, women are opting out of family entirely at staggering rates due to the forced trade-offs between parenting and career.3 All of this begs the question—are we focusing too much on the role of mothers in the workforce when we should instead be focused on the needs of families in the workforce?
As founders of a woman-owned company, Sara and I sought to not only transform the types of work we do, but also how we work.
Recognizing that our demanding consulting careers could give us promotions but not flexibility, we decided to build a company that bends in the direction of families.
When we first started our project of creating family-friendly work, our aims were simple: incentivize our employees based on quality and service over time in a chair. This approach made room for mothers, but also fathers who are parents and caretakers. Now, as ILLUME has matured as a company, I am starting to view our role as nurturing talent through the most demanding period of life: the intersection of peak career and peak family so that fewer women (read also: family members) are leaving the workforce, stepping back, or taking reduced wages just to survive.
I see this small bend in the way we define our work as honoring our realities as family members. I also see it as the first step in reviving a lagging economy. Putting families first is good economic policy and economic justice. And while this benefits all families, our approach to running our company has resulted in pretty incredible shifts in company culture—some that I could never have predicted.
In the beginning, I would pinch myself on conference calls seeing the small shifts. Our parents felt safe to join a video chat with a sick kid on their lap—a kid who is growing up watching their parent care for them while engaging an entire team in their work. As we have grown this has become commonplace. So are afternoons off for birthdays or ballgames. The work is not only getting done, we built an in-demand consultancy demonstrating that business can thrive by getting it done differently.
Now, after nearly six years on this project, we discuss things at ILLUME that dramatically impact families that are otherwise left in the shadows at work, such as choices to expand our families (and the ups and downs of that process), immigration, illness, and the inevitable assists we all give to people we love outside of our nuclear family.
I celebrate these small things while
always remembering a time when the workplace wasn’t like this, when I felt
compelled to hide the realities of family life for fear it would affect my
career. I also wonder how much our workplace can bend in response to
unrealistic parenting, gender, and societal norms for mothers, parents, care
providers, and children. Sometimes, we can bend over backwards to do too much,
take on too much, and lift burdens that ultimately should be shared between
parents, across families, and throughout communities.
I am grateful every day that my daughter has a
co-parent who is in the trenches with me taking on more than half of the
domestic responsibilities as we walk the tightrope between our two careers. In
thinking about Mother’s Day, I realize that the greatest impact I can have on
other working mothers and my own daughter is helping to redefine how we work
and how we care for each other.
1 Claire Cain Miller, Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy’, The New York Times, April 26, 2019, Accessed May 5, 2019.
2 Tara Siegel Bernard, When She Earns More: As Roles Shift, Old Ideas on Who Pays the Bills Persist, The New York Times, July 6, 2018, Accessed May 7, 2019.
3 Lara Takenaga, Japan Is Among the Hardest Countries for Working Mothers. These Families Want to Change That., The New York Times, April 11, 2019 , Accessed May 7, 2019.