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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Dear Everyone: Let’s Ban “Working Mom” From Our Vocabulary

There are some words I want to kill from the English language.

First, “career woman.”

This needs to go the way of “lady lawyer” and “coed.” Women are college students and attorneys, and they have careers. Sure, some women don’t have careers. Neither do some men. But no one says “career man.” We don’t need a special moniker for the fairly obvious act of supporting oneself by working for money in an increasingly specialized manner over time. Kill it. Kill it in a fire.

Next on my list? “Mommy,” when spoken by anyone over the age of six. And “mom,” “mother,” and “working mother,” when spoken in a workplace.

These words don’t belong in a professional environment. They are unnecessary reminders of some people’s status as part of a disadvantaged class. They’re overly personal. It’s inappropriate.

All workplace language should be ungendered: We have co-workers, colleagues, managers. Not supervisory madams or gentleman-ceptionists. Our “policemen” have long since become police officers. Our “stewardesses” are now flight attendants.

Even a word like “husband”—a gendered word associated with the more privileged end of the gender spectrum—sounds weirdly personal in a workplace. Try thinking of all your male co-workers as husbands. “Stan is our HR specialist, and a working husband.” It’s weird. Are you imagining him changing lightbulbs? Being nagged to clean out the storm drain? Despite the fact that these things may play no role at all in Stan’s life, the weight of gendered stereotypes is a heavy one.

It’s worse, of course, when someone’s a “working mother.”

Entrepreneur Kristy Sammis sums it up nicely in DailyWorth’s “Don’t Call Me a Working Mom:”

Today, Clever Girls is a multimillion-dollar agency with more than 20 employees; a network of 7,000 women; and a bunch of fancy awards that mostly make the blood, sweat, and tears worth it.

I also have two children, now ages five and three.

Which means I am not generally labeled an entrepreneur. I’m generally labeled a “working mom.”

People hear that I work from home and that I have kids and something odd happens. I’m immediately perceived differently. It’s as though they start picturing me spending all day balancing my laptop on my toddler’s head, banging out a few emails between Yo Gabba Gabba episodes until we all give up and go out for ice cream.

Similarly, in “Our ‘Mommy’ Problem” in The New York Times, Heather Havrilesky opined:

Becoming a mother doesn’t change you so much as violently refurbish you, even though you’re still the same underneath it all.

That can be hard to remember when teachers, coaches, pediatricians, and strangers alike suddenly stop addressing you by your name, or even “ma’am” or “lady,” and start calling you “Mom.” You’ll feel like a new person, all right—a new person you don’t necessarily know or recognize.

Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated—or perhaps demoted—to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.

I have an eight-month-old baby. I haven’t written much about that—in fact, a woman I met at the Bullish Conference last weekend remarked that she had seen photos of me pregnant at last year’s conference, but when I never went on to write about parenthood, she assumed she had imagined my pregnancy.

(A side note—I don’t feel “violently refurbished” at all. There’s something to be said for having a baby after you’ve gained a decade-plus of experience in project management and event planning. I also have a policy of only reproducing with a partner committed to gender equality. But YMMV.)

So, I’m a parent. That’s a fact. Indeed, I happen to be the parent who was pregnant and gave birth and breastfed, all of which is now over and done with. So the gendered parts of parenting are really behind us. There is very little about my partner’s and my parenting style that has anything to do with gender. My partner has very strong ideas about diapering (I’ll leave it to your imagination), and handles more than 50% of that. I make homemade baby food in a special machine made for that purpose. He takes the baby for nighttime walks. I hang her upside down and swing her around. If she cries at night, he gets up. If she falls down, my usual response is, “That wasn't so bad, was it? Want to stand up again?” Indeed, she does. Where’s the part where my gender is a big deal? A bigger deal than my personality, or deliberate choices, or even class background? I don’t see it.

My baby can’t talk yet, and I work for myself where I’m free to disclose, or not, that I am a parent, so no one ever calls me a “working mom” or a “mom” at all. Which is good. My partner might call me “baby,” or “faerie queen of the realm,” or “Ms. Dziura,” but that’s really not something I tell people in business meetings. Neither is what my baby calls me. What’s cute coming from a child is marginalizing, overly personal, and a little gross coming from the mouth of an adult.

In “Why Get Married? What’s the Damn Point?” I wrote in favor of the word “partner” in the public sphere. The word “wife” is fraught with historical baggage. It feels like playing gender drag. Like wearing a Betty Draper Halloween costume. Like 30 Rock’s “normaling.” It was just decades ago that a “wife” couldn’t get credit in her own name, or buy property, or start a business. Why would I carry that baggage into my business?

The P-Word Policy

I propose that, beginning now, we begin using the words “partner” and “parent” wherever gender is not important. Which is almost all of the time.

When it comes to our romantic relationships, “partner” is even better than the gender-neutral “spouse,” because the legal status of your relationship is—outside of certain HR matters relating to your health care and 401k—your own business, and because legal marriage is still not accessible to all. It’s also just a nicer word in that it emphasizes joint action rather than mere legal ties.

A friend of mine complained that she tried to use “partner” in the workplace, only for her co-workers to assume she was a lesbian. When her partner turned out to be male, the result was that more attention, rather than less, was paid by her co-workers to her romantic relationship. So, sure, when you talk about your partner, you could say something like, “My partner will be coming to the company dinner—good thing he loves Italian food.”

But, overall, I think it would be only positive were the burden of verbal gymnastics to fall equally upon heterosexuals.

Next, and perhaps more importantly, let’s all say “parent.”

If you regularly read websites like this one, I’m sure you know that the working mother penalty is a real thing.

Why exacerbate it? Why call attention? Let’s not.

Sure, if you’re talking about pay discrimination, you will likely need to say the phrase “working mothers.” Otherwise, stick with “parents.” Male parents often want more flexibility. Female parents often don’t want to be excluded from career opportunities involving travel. Unnecessarily gendered terms suffuse the workplace with harmful assumptions.

You might argue that instead of banishing the word “mother,” we should fight stereotypes that paint working mothers as less committed or otherwise undesirable. Yes, we should do that also. But that’s still no defense of unnecessarily gendered language. I believe in fighting homophobia at every turn. But I don’t call my graphic designer my “gay graphic designer,” because that’s inappropriate and irrelevant. Same with calling attention to society’s tired old assumptions about how men and women parent.

My final—and biggest—argument for killing the word “mother” in a professional context is that, absent lazy reliance on stereotypes and connotations, people will have to think more and be more direct about what they’re really saying.

“Will we ever have a mother serve as president?” becomes “Will we ever have a president who is both a parent and a woman?” Since the vast majority of our presidents have been parents, it becomes apparent that it’s the woman part, not the parent part, that the speaker is objecting to.

Adopt a p-word policy. Keep the retrograde stereotypes, patriarchal baggage, and personal intrusions out of the workplace. Make a better world for working parents, and everyone who’s ever been a little screwed over by the patriarchy—one p-word we can dismantle chip by chip and block by block.

Photo of mom courtesy of Shutterstock.