It wasn’t until I read Professor Stone’s book and dove headlong into her research that I realized how I had internalized so much of the cultural narrative around mothers in the workplace. I believed the system wasn’t wrong; women who left it were. When I left, I thought I was the failure, not the workplace itself.
I had spent decades of my young life getting the best education possible and was deeply committed to being successful in my career, but, like J. C. Wiatt, I worked in advertising. It’s a profession that values the cool, the hip, the cutting edge, and all that is “sexy.” Motherhood? That’s Norman Rockwell, apple pie, the 1950s, women baking cookies for their children who are outside playing on the tree swing. Lovely images, but certainly not sexy.
When I first joined Foote, Cone & Belding, a senior creative director invited me into his office for a get-to-know-you chat. Dressed in a black shirt and black Levi jeans (cutting-edge office wear for those suit-and-neck-tie days), this guy was the agency’s rising star, an unspoken arbiter of all that was cool. At the end of our little talk, he said, “I knew you’d be OK; you know how to dress.”
Image mattered (and still matters) in the agency world. Being a mother was simply not part of the successful persona. My boss was a mother, but she was the primary breadwinner and had a husband who stayed home to care for their son. Besides her, there was not a single woman at the top of the agency. As for “working” mothers, we were few and far between. The male leaders may have been fathers, but they never talked about their children. Fatherhood wasn’t cool then either.
Bath & Body Works Careers Photo Gallery
After I had my daughter and my maternity leave was at its end, I started having nightmares. I can’t remember them now in detail, but I have a vague memory of one in which I was walking down the office hallway. I wasn’t pregnant anymore, but I was wearing tent-like maternity clothes because I was still twenty pounds overweight and couldn’t fit into my “cool” outfits. Large dark spots bloomed on my blouse where breast milk leaked through. At the end of the long hall stood the rising star, his arms crossed, his head shaking, his mouth twisted in disgust. I wanted, needed, to reach him but the hallway seemed to get longer and longer. I started to run. My engorged breasts hurt from the pounding, and I nearly tripped in my high-heeled shoes. I woke up crying, absolutely sure I’d never make it to the end.
I’d spent four harrowing months on bed rest, almost losing my daughter on numerous occasions. Then I spent three months on maternity leave trying to recover from it all. I needed help to regain my footing as a mother and a professional. But when I attempted to work part-time or work a reduced schedule, it wasn’t an option. Not even a consideration. No one at the agency had any form of flexibility. Why should I be the exception? My agency wanted me to work all of the time, or not at all.
And then, as luck would have it, our au pair quit. Vicki was young, British, and loving with our son, William She lived with us, which meant when I left the house at 7 AM (often before William awoke) and returned home around 8 PM (often after he was in bed), I had no doubt he was being well cared for by his beloved Vicki. But she was ready to move on with her life.
Vicki waited until our daughter came home from the hospital and then announced she was heading back to England. We couldn’t afford a nanny who lived outside the home, and we struggled to find a new au pair. Vicki was hard to replace. We looked into day care, but we couldn’t find one on such short notice with room for two children under the age of three. And anyway, the cost of day care was prohibitive. Nearly three-quarters of my salary would be going to pay for someone else to take care of our children. In that moment, it just didn’t seem to make sense.
And so, as you know by now, I quit.
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