Have you ever thought about the phrase “working mum”? Neither word is harmful on its own, but smash them together and you’ve got an expression that is offensive.
Why does it take being employed by an outside entity to categorise a mother as “working”? Are we really saying that being a mother in and of itself is not a job? That you’re not constantly moving, watching, thinking, preparing, cooking, cleaning, worrying, playing, loving—all at the same time?
I’d argue that every mum is a working mum. It’s the job that doesn’t provide paid time off, non-working weekends or normal business hours. You can’t set an out-of-office message and defer undesirable tasks to another day. When you’re a mum, you’re working 24/7.
When I found out I was expecting—after two years of trying to conceive, two devastating miscarriages, two failed IUI procedures, and a very emotionally charged round of IVF—I was excited, and then immediately nervous. Not only because #pregnancyafterloss is so hard (/complicated/emotional/scary) but because I knew my work life would never be the same again. Gone were the days of coming in early to crank something out or late-night brainstorming on a pitch. My life was about to be ruled by a tiny dictator, one whose reign would start while still in the womb. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly the change would take effect.
I experienced the first act of discrimination while still pregnant, when excluded from a business-building meeting with the leads of an account I had managed for the past year. A peer was asked to the meeting in my place, since I was “going to be out for a while” (though I was only told after the meeting had taken place). More than 12 months later, I’ve still not worked on this piece of business.
The second time I experienced unfair treatment due to my physical state was when my manager (also female, also a mother) refused my request for two extra weeks of maternity leave. The reason provided was she had to treat me the same as every other employee—most notably a male colleague who’d been denied an extended paternity leave. The cherry on top was when she said: “You don’t want to look bad in front of the junior staff…you need to look like a dedicated employee, which means you need to physically be here.”
The third not-so-micro-aggression took place after my baby was born. After a particularly tough postpartum recovery thanks to my emergency c-section, I was dreading going back to work full time and needed a flexible return. I posed several options (return part-time for several weeks, work 40 hours in four days, work one day a week from home) but was told nothing could be arranged as “this job requires you to be here in person” and “it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the team”.
To address the first point, I need only to say: Covid-19 has proved that assumption wrong.
To the second point: how is a senior level colleague able to work from home one day a week, without their dedication being questioned? What’s equal about that?
The last and most recent time I was denied an opportunity because I’m a “working mum” came in another form of exclusion. This time, instead of being taken off an account, I’ve simply not been invited to contribute on any pitches, despite constantly raising my hand. A counterpart however—with no children—has worked on over a dozen. Naturally when I confronted my boss, she denied that as the reason.
Does any of this sound familiar? Was your wife/sister/friend/daughter treated in a similar fashion by her employer? Are you experiencing this treatment right now? Here’s what I wish I’d done differently:
I wish I had stood up for myself when the discrimination started, asking leadership for answers. Why was I left out of that meeting? Why couldn’t my peer and I attend? Why am I being treated the same as a male employee when the situation is not comparable? What protocols do you have in place to support mums returning to work? In lieu of having any, why weren’t any of my proposals considered? Why am I not given the same opportunities as my counterparts without children?
I wish I had the answers for fellow mums out there who are struggling and dealing with poor and unfair treatment. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. What I can tell you is that not everyone in advertising is like this. I have found a tribe within my agency that rejuvenates me. People I can commiserate with on how stressful it is when your baby won’t eat, sleep or poo, how women often carry the emotional labour of running the household, and how to deal with unsupportive leadership in the workplace. Find these women—seek them out—and go to them as frequently as you need. They will become your lifeline.
When you need anonymous assistance via an online community, check out @takingcarababies who will tell you absolutely everything you need to know, from baby sleep patterns to eating habits to progression milestones. For real-life testimonials from fellow mums, @thereturnityproject is my go-to when I need reminding that I’m not failing in every arena, I’m not alone, and that I will survive.
I wish I’d known about Creative Equals’ “Comeback” scheme, which supports women in bringing them back to work after career breaks (maternity, mental health, ageing parents). It began in London and recently launched in New York.
And to finish, can we all agree that the term “working mum” is a bit redundant? It’s a phrase that is no longer needed or useful in our vocabulary. It’s superfluous. It insinuates that you aren’t enough. But let me tell you, mama, YOU are more than enough—payslip or not. And don’t let anyone tell you or make you feel differently.
This story was submitted to Campaign UK and published anonymously. Campaign editors globally are working together on issues of discrimination in the workplace and will protect anonymity. If you have an experience you think should be shared, help our industry take action by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.