Welcome to Women in Work, a four part Bold Thinking series examining the unique role of women in the workplace. The series will bring together the constantly evolving role of women in the workplace and the unique perspectives of our staff.
Last week, we examined the rise of paternity leave in workplaces across the globe, and the slowly increasing trend of male employees taking paternity leave to show how much the expectations of parents continue to change.
Currently, Prime Minister Trudeau is considering an extension of paternal leave with benefits from 12 to 18 months. This is a gargantuan leap from 1921’s Maternity Protection Act, which prohibited employers from asking women to work for just six weeks after giving birth. While governments and employers acknowledge that adequate maternity leaves lead to healthier families, better work and happier employees, working mothers still face enduring misconceptions about their capabilities and loyalty to their professional lives.
Alexandra Frison, a Director at NATIONAL’s Calgary office and a communications veteran, offers her perspectives on the relationship between motherhood and her career.
What perspectives on parenting did you gain after your two maternity leaves?
During my first maternity leave, I felt conflicted. I wanted to be with my son very much but I also knew I wanted to continue to grow my career and achieve further academic goals. By the time I had my second son, I learned that for me personally, being a working mother enabled me to be a better mother because I was fulfilled – growing as a professional and as a parent. I realized I didn’t have to be one or the other so long as I gave each the very best I could in those moments.
The term “balance” is used a lot in the narrative around women with thriving careers and families. How do you manage that and do you think that today’s policies allow for a realistic work-life balance for working mothers?
To me, the term balance implies a steady state. Life is fluid. Attributing equal hours in a day to work and home life is unrealistic, so assigning a label like “work-life balance” can do more harm than good because it sets an expectation that it’s 50/50.
My life is never “balanced” so I have to be strategic in managing what I’ve got on my plate at the time.
During times when I’m working long hours, I will inevitably miss bed times, practices or games. So I have to be smart and find other ways to make it up to my kids. So maybe I can’t make it to the kids’ game because I’m stuck in a late meeting, but I can take them for ice cream after, or even quickly FaceTime in before the game to wish them luck. No, it’s not as good as being there but ultimately, it lets my boys that know I care and that I’m trying the best I can.
But that said, sometimes I fail terribly at being strategic. I get overwhelmed because it’s too much to manage, organize and think about. Work, appointments, sports, two dogs, etc. It’s in these times that I reach out to my support network (including wine and pizza) and wave a white flag.
As for policies around work-life balance, the most important factor is the attitude of my manager. The more flexible of a mindset my manager has when my role as a parent takes precedence because of unforeseen hiccups like a sick child, the more appreciative and committed I am to delivering on my work commitments.
What stigmas do women face when they return to work as working mothers?
From an overall societal perspective, I believe we are getting better at understanding that working mothers are not bad mothers. Hours logged in a day aren’t the recipe for success. A good mother offers much more to her children than just time.
From a professional perspective, some working mothers are still overlooked for a more senior role as it’s presumed that family obligations might hinder professional commitments. Luckily, I haven’t come across that myself.
Have there been times in your career that you’ve felt that your experiences as a mom have strengthened your performance at work?
Absolutely. For me, having children has increased my desire and my ability to see others’ points of views and be more tolerant of those views. It’s also enabled me to be more compassionate and take the time to guide and mentor colleagues, thinking more about the successes of others and not just my own. As a parent (because dads do it too) you always put your wants second and focus on the daily victories of your children and how you can help them achieve those. That definitely has trickled over to my work life, because even at the office, I want to be a good role model.
As Alex mentioned, there are many stigmas and stereotypes about maternity leave, and around the idea that having a family changes the way that women treat their professional lives, and are permitted to progress within them. For many women, motherhood is a fulfilling experience, and improves the way that they work. Maternity leave gives women the opportunity to build up their family’s foundations and then return to work – allowing them to provide a secondary income for their families, and reduce a financial burden traditionally carried by men, while also preserving their own independence and pursuing their own career. It’s no longer just a women’s issue, because it affects entire families.
As women may have to bear the physical implications of becoming a parent, maternity leaves quickly become a matter of health and safety. With this in mind, it’s important to understand that maternity leaves are long-term investments into the loyalty, quality of work, and overall well-being of employees. Women still face adversity for it, and it’s essential that we break apart the attitude that motherhood and a professional career are mutually exclusive.