What If We Could Be Our Whole Selves at Work?

Friday, April 14, 2017 - 5:00 am

What If We Could Be Our Whole Selves at Work?

The first time I told an employer that I was pregnant, this is how it went down:

Sheepish smile creeping onto my face: “I have something to tell you…”

“Just don’t tell me you’re pregnant.”

Record scratch.

Keep in mind, that employer was a woman with three kids of her own. We laughed about it, but the underlying message was clear and, frankly, brutal to someone who has always prided herself on being low-maintenance and high-achieving at work: a baby has no place here.

Look, it’s not like I actually thought I would be able to bring my baby to work (though, on-site daycare seems pretty dang smart to me for all kinds of reasons). It’s just that, before becoming a mother, I had no idea how much pressure I would feel to show up at work washed clean of my identity as a parent.

I don’t mean just making sure there’s no spit-up on my blazer (though I sometimes fail at that). I mean getting freaked out when I’ve written a lot about mothering in this very column because I’m worried that people will label me a “mommy blogger.” I mean making my need to pump as discrete as possible (I’ve pumped in an interview booth at an investigative reporting shop, in a nun’s tiny bedroom, on the floor of myriad corporate offices, in a port-a-potty, in my car, and even inflight in my seat). I mean trying not to flinch when an employer casually mentions scheduling a meeting on the days I have my girls or the possibility of an overnight work trip.

I mean not referencing the constraints I face because of my kids, generally. I not only feel like I’m putting myself at professional risk, but like I’m screwing over the sisterhood; if this employer decides working moms are slackers because of me, they might not want to hire another one.

And keep in mind, I have the most cushy situation imaginable. I’m a freelancer, so I have multiple employers. If one decided to dump me because of the complexities of my working-mom hustle, I’d have others I could still depend on — unlike so many women who are at the whims of one boss. In theory, I also collaborate with the kinds of people who share my values, one of which is that people shouldn’t have to choose between meaningful, paid work and being present parents. And yet…

I still feel like I have to painstakingly code-switch between work and home. There are so many challenging structural barriers to being a working parent, but what I’m talking about here is the big, exhausting cultural one. It’s 2017, I’m economically secure (as much as any freelancer can be), surrounded by progressive collaborators and do work that I love, and still, I’m haunted by the sense that I will be seen as less, not more, if I show up as my whole self at work.

I’ve been either pregnant or nursing for over four years now, and I’ve worked the whole time with the exception of about four months, so I’ve had lots of time to experiment with owning my mother identity in work settings. So often, people are sweet about the actual existence of my daughters (commenting on how cute they are or asking after their wellbeing), but if they start to encroach on our professional space in some way (like getting sick when I am supposed to be on a conference call), the sweetness quickly turns to irritation — can’t someone else deal with that?

It’s almost like I’m in the theater. If I mention my kids — not as the cute stars of my Instagram, but real, messy humans with competing needs — I break “the fourth wall.”

I write this now, as vulnerable as it makes me feel, because I imagine other working moms feel this way and because this is not about working moms at all. It’s about anyone who doesn’t feel like they can acknowledge the real shit going on in their lives at work — people who are taking care of their aging parents or a disabled relative or friend, people who have a chronic illness, people who struggle with depression or are grieving for some reason. All of us, at one time or another, will contend with an unpredictable balance of the work we do and the people we care about, or the miraculous but imperfect bodies we inhabit. And most of us, I would venture a guess, don’t feel like we can be real about that with the people we work with or for.

Why are work and caretaking still so juxtaposed in American society? Why do we still expect one another to show up to work as if our bodies never fail or our hearts never break?

The truth is, I work ten times harder for the employers and collaborators who make me feel like I can show up as my whole self. When I feel safe to tell them when I need something (to be left alone right after my baby is born, a room to pump in, some forewarning on calls so I can arrange childcare), it grows a fierce loyalty in me. I want to be excellent for them, even if there is some undeniable level of unpredictability in my life. And I, of course, want to acknowledge their whole selves — whatever is going on behind that “fourth wall” for them.

I can just hear the opposition in my head now:

Work is work. You’re delusional if you think employers, who have to tend to the bottom line, are going to make special exceptions for you tending to your kids. It’s a slippery slope. If they let you duck out of conference calls when the babysitter flakes, where do they draw the line for others?

But I just don’t think life, much less “the bottom line,” actually works like this. I think that childless, healthy men take all kinds of liberties with their schedules that are thought of as totally acceptable because they have seniority and/or are being strategic in some way about what they need in order to be top performers (like not being expected to reply to emails until a certain time of the day or taking weeks off to climb mountains). It’s unclear to me why being a super-committed cyclist or marathon runner, for example, are seen as valiant demonstrations of someone’s potential strength and determination at work, while birthing and nurturing a baby is still seen, whether we’re willing to say it out loud or not, as a distraction.

It hasn’t always been this way. Which means it doesn’t have to be this way in the future. In Working Women, Workable Lives, the authors write:

“Prior to industrialization, children grew up in the midst of an adult world, with work happening all around them. Mothers and their children were not segregated off in their own shadowy world, separate and unequal, existing as mere reflections of the ‘real’ work going on in the ‘real’ world.”

I don’t want to turn back the clock so much as reclaim what’s real. Hungry babies are real. Aging parents are real. Bodies, brains, and hearts break, for real. We can’t be authentic, compassionate people in our professional lives unless we’re willing to acknowledge this reality. And when we do, far from preventing us from being productive or creating some kind of slacker contagion, we make people feel whole. When people feel whole, they do amazing work. Or at least that’s what this nursing, writing, healing, conference calling, cleaning, advising, cooking, strategizing, caring human believes.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • Molly Alden

    I appreciate all you have said and have been there myself with twins and an older child, but I am intrigued that no where you mention the involvement of or structural pressured faced by the father of your children. I don’t think it’s possible to have the privileged working mother conversation without talking about expanding the caretaking role of the dad.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Hi Molly. Good point. Could only fit in so much, but I did ask my husband if he feels the same pressure to not mention our kids when in work settings and he says he doesn’t. Obviously we’re just a case study of one pair, so I’m not sure how much of that would be typical of other working fathers?!

      • Judy Montel

        I would also be interested in hearing more about men’s perspective and experiences as caretakers of their children and parents – even if not doing so full time. I know that when our older parents’ fail, often they start needing their offspring at odd moments for unexpected crises, not all medical. If you ever gather information like this I’d be very interested in seeing if it supports a theory I have about the reluctance of most of us to confront human fragility and frailty – both of which the dependent young, old and/or disabled among us have and display in ways that make it unavoidable for the rest of us to witness.

  • Gabby

    I think many people think their work places are not suitable for bringing the whole self when truly it would be just fine, as long as they are considerate of others who need to be able to concentrate and get work done or to obtain necessary services while having serious things going on in their own lives as well. Sometimes we are holding ourselves back more than our situation is!
    It is sometimes about judgment or balance. Imagine a wing of nurses who spend lots of time at work fretting to each other about their children or about significant others or sharing their grief or their own health issues or their anxieties. Lots of everyone’s time and emotional energy can get used up every day in that until nothing is left for their patients.
    There are other people whose jobs are, as you write, much, much less accommodating and flexible- who lose their jobs if they say they need to go home because the babysitter flakes. While privileged people can leave work to catch their children’s school plays or to trouble-shoot at home, there are many parents who are prevented from it by the inflexibility of their work, usually the disadvantaged working person. It is a policy problem that needs addressing.

  • Kirsten

    I appreciate what you’ve written in this column. I do believe there are many of us struggling with feeling unable to bring our whole self to our workplace. I don’t have children, but I do understand the importance for everyone to be able to be themselves in the office. For each of us to be able to say “this work trip isn’t at a good time for me” or “I need to leave early for ____”. I have a niece and a nephew, and I would like to be able to attend a few of their after school games or activities. I’ve adopted a new attitude of bringing my whole self to work and asking for what I need. If I’m told no that’s okay. But I know that I’m showing up as my whole self and at least asking for what is important to me. Sometimes it’s a yes and sometimes it’s a no. I don’t think it should all come down to having children vs not having children. I think it’s pushing for companies to offer flexibility to all employees when it is earned/not taken advantage of.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Agreed Kristen, it’s about all of us, not just parents. As long as people have life outside of work, it’s going to compete for our time.

  • Love this. Thank you.

  • Great article! I think this problem of “not breaking the fourth wall” about the messiness of life is present in the larger culture to an enormous degree as well. We’re supposed to keep our pain and inconvenient vulnerability hidden from view in public. When my husband died (and my son was under a year old), and I was a deeply sad parent, no one anywhere–at preschool, at church, at the dentist, at writing group–wanted to hear about the long-ongoing pain and chaos of raising a child alone in the midst of grief. I’m a therapist, and my clients report this same kind of pressure to keep what’s really going on in their lives behind a tidy shield–like the isolation and fear of dealing with an adult child suffering from a mental illness; like the unexpected grief that comes from watching your friends becoming grandparents when your only child died 12 years ago and you’ll never be a grandparent; like the anguish that pops up unbidden when you’re unchosenly childless and everyone else is talking about “mommy brain. Rarely is revealing the true vulnerability of this kind of everyday experience welcome in most mainstream conversation places.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you for this, Candyce. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been (having little ones myself). You make me want to be way more conscious of how little comments I might make normalize my own life while making invisible the experiences of others.

      • Thanks so much for your reply and for your willingness to be conscious. I also want to be sure I’m not coming across as suggesting that people need to censor what they say. My experience is that if we can share what’s going on with us, and also invite the sharing of different experiences, then we can all share pain AND joy (even at the same time). I have a therapy group for aging women, and most of them are grandparents. One woman in the group is childless and doesn’t have grandchildren. The women who are grandmothers sometimes do share their excitement or troubles about their grandchildren in the group, and we support them in their experiences and check in with the one who doesn’t have grandchildren as well. When her ache and longing are also included in the conversation, we share the experiences of all, and all are expanded.

        • Sharon

          So beautiful, Candyce. Thank you for sharing all this. I feel it shift something in me. Again, deeply, thank you.

  • Courtney E. Martin

    Thank you so much for this Sheila. I hadn’t thought about the connection with how we show up in schools and this is spot on. Thanks for helping me see the connections between my prior and current thinking.

  • Anna H. (Anima Mundi)

    I never had children but when I was working, I certainly felt this disconnect. Sometimes it worked to my advantage: when I was first struggling with depression and anxiety, I was young and had jobs that were task-oriented but didn’t involve a lot of collaboration and decision-making. Work became a structured, calm refuge from the internal chaos within me. But when I moved to client-oriented work that demanded that I really “show up,” it was much more difficult.

  • Lynise Lassiter

    Yes! Yes! Thank you for sharing what I’ve always believed. There are so many ways to be productive at work without giving up yourself. I wish employers would see that. And unfortunately, the worst offenders are often women. 🙁

  • flowerplough

    it’s illegal for employers and bosses to pay the pregnant less, but also difficult for them to pretend that young mothers turn in the same work as the childless. I sympathize with Courtney’s employer.

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