Mum of two and editor of Spinoff Parents Emily Writes working

Working mothers make great employees, so stop being an asshole about them

Jacinda Ardern’s plan to be both PM and a mum has prompted shrieks of outrage from some. What better example of the prejudice that many mums face when they go back to work, writes journalist and mother of two Sarah Stewart.

To illustrate this story we have used photos of the author-mums who write for The Spinoff Parents, and other mums who work outside the home. 

Babies. They’ll melt your heart and stretch your body. Few would disagree with that. But suck the IQ from your brain cells? It’s a frighteningly common insinuation. So on behalf of many working mums, I want to argue that growing a baby doesn’t shrink your mind.

Recently I wrote a story about pharmaceuticals and used the more common word ‘drugs’.’ A PR man wrote an email to my boss, explaining the industry prefers ‘medicines’. Then he felt the need to add this doozy: “But all OK we completely understand as Sarah is on maternity leave and juggling life as a new mum.”

Actually, this is not “all OK”.

It is completely patronising.

I would have used the same conversational language whether I’d given birth or not. It wasn’t a silly slip-up because I am a mother. Sure, my beloved child – awake from her nap early, covered in banana and trying to vault out of her high chair – did her best to derail my interview with the CEO but I managed to maintain an adult conversation, asked appropriate questions and wrote a piece you otherwise described as “fantastic”. All this on no more than four hours sleep straight for A YEAR. Comments like this belittle working mums, when they should be given giant bouquets for doing their jobs while keeping a small person alive.

Mum of two Dr Jessica Berentson-Shaw at work, reading her essay in the second volume of The Journal of Urgent Writing. Credit: John Duke

If only it was an isolated example. One high-flying friend was told by her employer she needed to choose between her child and her job as it seemed her “priorities had changed”.

No shit, bossman. She grew a human.

Surely there’s something wrong if that’s not more important than your company. But yes, it meant she had to walk out the door at 5.30pm so she could hold her daughter for half an hour before she went to bed.

Your failure to support her made her quit.

When I told work I was pregnant with my first child, someone up the food chain was overheard exclaiming “Oh that’s my worst nightmare! She was doing really well…” It made me wonder if the career I loved was over. My marvellous boss, also a mother, didn’t see it like that. “Whatever you need, I’ll make it work,” she said. And it did work, because she gave me what working parents need most (after coffee): flexibility. In exchange, I worked my ass off.

A recent report found women in flexible work are the most productive members of the workforce. Sure, we might use a bit of work time to revel in adult conversation, hot coffee, and a loo visit without a kid sitting on our knee. But when you’re paying the GDP of a small country to guiltily leave your child in daycare, you want your work to count.

Lots of employers are doing good things. Two of TVNZ’s foreign correspondents are women with young children. When Coca-Cola Amatil’s former HR manager became a foster dad, it opened his eyes. Now the company boasts flexible working, subsidised childcare, a breastfeeding room, and pay reviews while on parental leave. They now have more mums returning to work.

Frankly, we should expect nothing less. Having a baby is hardly unusual. And studies have found being a mum makes you better at your job.

Mum of three Mrs P and mum of three Emmaline Matagi preparing lunch for their class

Personally my CV could now state that I’m an amateur teacher, nurse and interpretive dancer. A highly skilled multi-tasker and master negotiator who is working towards a PhD in the art of conflict resolution. As they say, “hell hath no fury like a toddler who has been given toast when they asked for toast.”

One news boss memorably told me that no matter what shit hit the fan at work, getting his children out the door in the morning was always the hardest part of his day.

Mum of three Julie Fairey speaking to the Auckland mayor and councillors as local board chair.

Sure, the early days with wee ones are bloody difficult, and some days it’s hard to give anything 100%. But please remember those of us who go back to work have the same talent, smarts and ambition as we did before. In fact, many of us now have even more.

You might even find Jacinda is a better PM for being a mother. Just you wait.

Sarah Stewart is a freelance journalist, former TV reporter, and mum of two little girls. One day she hopes to get a full night’s sleep.

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