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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Why Apologizing Hurts Us More Than We Know

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A few months after I gave birth to my second child, a senior (and childless) executive I admired pulled me aside at work. You’re doing a great job, she assured. “But,” she added, and looked me straight in the eye, "You've got to stop apologizing."

I was stunned. Did I really say sorry that often? She suggested I keep track for a day. So I did.

Sorry, I said, when subway delays made me a few minutes late to work. Sorry, I wrote, that I didn't respond sooner to your email. Sorry I couldn’t make it to school. Sorry I can’t stay late tonight. By the end of the day, I'd tallied up more than a dozen apologies. At this rate, I calculated, I was saying sorry nearly 100 times a week.

Maybe I’d over-apologized before having kids, too (studies have found women are more apt to apologize than men). But now, I realized, the word slipped so easily off my tongue, I hardly noticed it. Sometimes they were surely merited. But increasingly, apologies had simply become an auto-response to the guilt I felt whenever work and family commitments collided.

By buying into the belief that I was somehow at fault if I could not contort my schedule to accommodate school events, doctors’ appointments, social obligations, and work meetings, I realized I had set myself up to fail—and apologize—constantly. Once I started paying attention, I recognized a similar chorus of contrition from friends and female colleagues. One told me that as much as she scrambled, she was always playing catch up. Another felt she was constantly letting someone down, whether it was her boss, her family, or herself.

I was reminded of them recently when I read the review of Katrina Alcorn's new book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, in The New York Times (aptly headlined: "Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry"). Alcorn, a working mom of three, had noticed the same tendencies to over-apologize among the hundreds of women whose stories she'd collected. And she'd found—as I did—that often we're apologizing for an inability to do the impossible: be two places at once, say or be both full-time mother and full-time employee. (Yes, fathers increasingly feel the pressure as well, but our culture still places the bulk of household and parental responsibilities on mothers.) In making the decision to continue on with our careers full time after children (a choice that's still not supported by most Americans, even criticized as “selfish”), we often feel we must also shoulder the primary responsibility of taking care of our family and homes. It’s no wonder so many of us have succumbed to the sorry syndrome.

But it’s got to stop.

If working moms are guilty of anything, it's for wanting careers and paychecks of our own. And that's not something I want to apologize—or be penalized—for. All this apologizing is not just adding to our anxiety, it’s distracting us from the real problem. As Alcorn puts it: Our country is “uniquely hostile to working parents.”

The United States is the only OECD country, and one of the few in the world, that does not offer guaranteed paid maternity leave. In fact, the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires most employers to provide 12 weeks of job-protected parental leave (albeit unpaid), went into effect just 20 years ago. Attempts to require paid leave since have been few and, to date, futile. (A bill that would provide four weeks’ of paid parental leave to federal employees introduced earlier this year was given just a 1% chance by GovTrak of being passed by Congress.)

Congress did pass legislation to provide working parents with subsidized child care—more than 40 years ago. The 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act would have set up a network of nationally funded child care centers that would provide education, nutrition, and medical services on a sliding payment scale. It was vetoed by President Nixon, who claimed it had "family-weakening implications.”

In the four decades since, no legislation has made it past Congress, but child care costs have skyrocketed. The average cost for daycare is now nearly $10,000 a year—more than a quarter of the median annual income for women before taxes are taken out. (In cities like New York, it can cost thousands more for a licensed day care center. When our oldest was an infant, we paid more than $1,600 a month for full-time care.) In 28 states, a parent working full time in a minimum-wage job cannot even cover the cost of child care for two kids.

Child care concerns don't end when the kids go to school. Across the country, public schools follow schedules that are completely out of sync with work schedules—ending hours before any traditional employer lets workers go—and often arrange events for parents in the middle of the day. The simple fact is: You cannot attend a board meeting and a school event scheduled at the same time. You cannot schedule ahead or around picking a sick kid up from school and taking him to the doctor. And it's highly unlikely that you will have enough vacation to stay home every time school is closed and summer camp is out of session.

My seven-year-old son gets more than five weeks off during the school year, plus another week and a half between school and camp. That’s three to four weeks more than the average vacation time employers offer in the United States. (In fact, the U.S. is one of the few countries that doesn’t actually require employers to offer any paid vacation.) If we didn't have a nanny for our youngest—and she won't be around forever—my husband and I would have to devote every vacation and personal day to cover the days he's not at school or camp. And we’d still fall short.

Asking us to choose between family and career is not only unfair, it's unrealistic for most American families. Few of us can afford to live on one parent's paycheck anymore. (And is it right to put that much pressure on one person anyway?)

In 2012, fathers were the sole breadwinner in just 20% of all married couples with kids, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In nearly 60% of married-parent households with kids, both parents work. And if you include single parents, mothers are now the sole or primary earner in 40% of all households with children, according to a Pew Research report. This isn’t a sudden development: 70% of married mothers were working or looking for work back in the mid-1990s.

Yet our employers, policies, and schools have still not adjusted to this not-so-new reality. So why are we the ones apologizing?

In fact, why are we not asking for apologies—or, better yet, action—from the lawmakers who've failed to enact any federal legislation to support paid maternity and paternity leave, subsidized day care, universal pre-K, or after-school programs? From self-declared "pro-family" politicians who are often anything but, unless you adhere to their idea of what a “traditional” family should look like?

Why are we not asking for apologies from employers who treat having children as an impediment for women (though, strangely, not men) to do our jobs well—and a reason to pay and promote us less? (Particularly since there’s plenty of evidence to indicate working moms perform as well as their childless colleagues, or better.) Or from those who act as if a request to work from home occasionally or to leave early for a school event—even if we come in early to compensate—means we’re “less committed” to our careers?

I know, it may seem unreasonable—and certainly unrealistic—to expect lawmakers or employers to apologize. But that's no more unreasonable than putting the blame on ourselves for failing to conform to an outdated idea of what a woman’s role and responsibilities should be.

As long as we continue to apologize, we perpetuate the myth that we're the ones to blame for a society, a government, and a workplace culture that fall far short of supporting the real needs of today’s families. If we stop, it might finally allow us to put the attention where it belongs: on changing the standards. Not on our failure to meet them.

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  • Photo of mom courtesy of Shutterstock.