Nearly a decade ago, I was attending an important work conference out of town when the dreaded number flashed up on my phone: the kids’ school. I was the relatively new CEO of a non-profit organization. More importantly, I was also the mother of two kids under the age of five.
I rushed into the hallway to answer the call, unsure what was awaiting me on the other end. A sick child? A playground injury? A form I had forgotten to fill out? As I dealt with it, I saw a familiar face in the hallway: a senior leader of another organization—and another mom. She was on the phone, too, frantically piecing together last-minute childcare.
The reason the memory has stuck with me all these years is not because of who was there, but who wasn’t. My colleague’s husband, who also works in our field and is a great dad, was attending the same conference—yet he wasn’t the one in the hallway dealing with the family crisis, and neither was mine (also a great dad, but not the first name on the school's call list). To me, it’s a poignant reminder that in households led by heterosexual couples, women still carry the majority of the mental load of parenting, regardless of what they do in their professional lives.
This is a problem that employers could do something about—and they should want to. There’s evidence that companies with more women in leadership roles tend to perform better, and that working mothers are some of the most productive employees around. Ensuring that talented women can continue to work in jobs at every level and grow in their careers when they have children would expand opportunity for women, build healthier workplaces, and maximize performance for companies. It would no doubt be good for families, too.
At EdNavigator, we work with caregivers of all kinds: mothers, fathers, grandparents, even aunts and uncles. But the majority of our members are working moms, which means that most of the members we’re supporting every day are shouldering not just demanding day jobs, but also demanding home jobs.
With Mother’s Day coming up, what would it look like to really appreciate the moms among us? Don’t get me wrong, flowers and pastries and handwritten cards are nice. But if we truly valued mothers’ contributions as much as we should, things would look very different, all year round.
What can employers and schools do to unburden working mothers from (some of) that huge mental load they’re carrying? Every workplace and school should adopt strategies that fit the unique needs of their community, and those will look different in different spaces. But here are a few ideas to consider:
Embrace flexible, creative systems for all working parents.
Kids get sick. They have unexpected school closures for bad weather, and doctor’s appointments that can’t be scheduled on the weekends. Working parents—moms and dads alike—need workplace cultures that acknowledge those realities, and put systems in place to embrace them. For example, working mothers in shift-based jobs need straightforward systems for changing or trading shifts with colleagues, without losing a paycheck or having to take sick days. Parents in 9-5 roles benefit from fluid start and end times, or options to work remotely when and where possible. Some offices allow employees to bring their infants to work in the early months, while others are looking at other creative ways to accommodate the needs of families with new babies.
In school, flexibility is also critical. A mother who can’t make it to a middle-of-the-day parent-teacher conference isn’t necessarily disengaged—she might just be unable to get the time off work. Scheduling conferences at a range of different times of day, offering phone or video chat alternatives, or including childcare on-site during conference times can make life easier for all working parents.
Use inclusive language to talk about families.
“Here’s a form for Mom to sign.”
“Ask your mom about this.”
“Let’s call Mom.”
We’ve all heard variants of this in school, where mothers are often the presumed primary contact for students. Schools can shift the responsibility off the generic “Mom”—and be more inclusive in the process—by adopting neutral terms when talking to students about who’s at home, or learning about individual students’ family structures and tailoring communications to suit them. “Getting to Know My Child” forms can be useful tools for schools to keep on file from the start of the new school year, so it’s easy to avoid assumptions about who to call when a student gets sick or needs that permission slip signed.
Don’t wait for mothers to ask for help.
Instead of relying on mothers to speak up when something doesn’t work for them, schools and workplaces can be proactive about making choices that are inclusive of all working parents. In school, that might mean being thoughtful about offering food and childcare during school events, and making sure PTA meetings have conference lines available for parents who can’t be present in person but still want to participate. Workplaces can stay on top of seasonal trends that affect families (like school vacations) and be especially thoughtful about scheduling during those times. And new mothers shouldn’t have to ask to exercise their protected rights: For example, employers should make sure all staff are aware of their company’s accommodations for nursing mothers, so it’s not on moms to ask when and where they can express breastmilk—or to educate their managers or colleagues about their right to do so. Employers can also make sure staff have ready access to support with family concerns right in the workplace, so employees don’t feel that they have to hide their family lives while they’re at work.
Promote equitable ownership of family responsibilities.
Research shows that mothers and fathers are treated differently in professional settings: While men tend to be rewarded for having children, women tend to take a financial and career hit. But workplaces can proactively work to undo those patterns through family-friendly policies that apply to mothers, fathers, and all constellations of families: flexible family leave for all kinds of caregivers; job structures that allow employees to more easily substitute for one another; and backup childcare benefits. We love to see our own employer partners promoting EdNavigator services to all parents and carers, not just moms. Schools can do their part by actively recruiting fathers to participate in activities that often default to mothers, like volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning field trips.