September 27th, 2007 | 9:10 am

Why Working Mothers Lie

filed under Breaking the Glass Ceiling

I’m a liar. Actually, I’m a serial liar.

I refuse to admit that I’ve been late or absent from work because the kids have chicken pox/flu/a broken collarbone, or the babysitter didn’t show up. I would rather lie to my boss and cite train delays or urgent meetings.

Here’s the harsh truth about why: It is simply not acceptable admit that you are giving anything less than 100% at the office because you happen to be a mother. Any excuse, including chronic flakiness, a borderline drinking problem, or being abducted by aliens, is better than confessing problems on the mommy front.


A research study conducted by UK nursery chain The Family Care Company asked 1,500 women about attitudes towards working mothers and the difficulties of the elusive “work/life balance.” Over half of the respondents admitted that they’d lied about absence or lateness when the root cause was their children. Many reported that they were (and are) worried about employer and colleague attitudes towards childcare difficulties.

Male colleagues actually appeared more sympathetic than childless female colleagues, with 57% of women saying that women without children were much harsher on them than men. Additionally, a whopping 94% said that having children affected their careers, whereas only 31% said that parenthood had affected their husband or partner’s career.

Rosemary Bennett of The London Times says that even women who work extra hours at home will still suffer career damage by simply not being at the office when others are. So apparently, it isn’t about ‘working smart’ – it’s about showing up.

In the London Evening Standard, Rashid Razaq noted that two-thirds of women questioned for the report said that asking for flexible working hours had met with disapproval from their bosses despite efforts to make companies more accommodating.

The UK government introduced the right for parents to request flexible hours in 2003, and so far more than a million requests have been granted, which could be seen as good news. Unfortunately, Razaq comments that even if this is the case, parents who exercise this right are likely to suffer, with fewer opportunities for promotion or pay rises.

I’m not proud of my former fibs. I doubt any working mother would be – but in a professional environment, if you want to stay working and be a mother, sometimes I’ve found that you have to grit your teeth – and lie through them – unless you have a very considerate and progressive boss.

15 comments

  1. John

    Nah.. I don’t think this is true

    In my team we have a few fathers and mothers.. who get out of the office early to take kids to doctors .. take days off if kid is sick and the spouse cannot take a day off … we even have a proud father who took 2 years of absence by quitting his job so that he could be home with his infant to see her grow up ….. one of the lady i work with has a spouse who is home looking after the kids for the next year as she has a young kid

  2. Anon Working Mom

    I think its totally true. I’m a working mother of three and I lie all the time. My boss would never accept any child related excuses, as he hardly ever sees his. Not sure what kind of company John works for, but let me know if they are hiring!

  3. From an 'Harsh' Colleague

    I am glad you lie and in my case I would love my coworkers to lie more! I am not a mom, I was never interested in motherhood and I strongly believe motherhood is an election, not a call from nature (or at least it should be if you are also using your brain in your decisions). So if your election is to have the motherhood responsibility, you should be able to juggle with it at the same time that you juggle with other responsibilities like work.

    It irks me like hell when kids are excuses at work and we all have to understand that “the poor one is the mother of three”. Well, AFAIK she wanted to be, right? Or was she raped?

    On the other hand, I love dogs way more than I love kids and my dog is my ‘kid’. I would love to have 10 dogs but I know I can’t take care of 10, I hope I will be able to take care of two some day. Still, if I would have to interrupt my work day for the vet or my pet related issues as much as mothers interrupt their day for their kids, I think I would be fired in two minutes… and I don’t find that fair. Why could you ask for flexible schedule and I can’t? I know my dog would like to have me more in the mornings so we can have longer walks that he so badly needs…

    Don’t get me wrong I am all for flexible hours at work and where I work everything is about working smarter and not just showing up. Still, ‘mother’ seems to function in the professional world pretty often like a shield that entitles its owner to offer excuses, excuses and more excuses for poor performance without any real criticism.

    So, if it is up to me, please keep lying!

  4. rundeep

    Good article. I never lie. When I’m out cause my kid is sick, I either take a sick day or work from home. And I say why. Yes, parenthood is an election, but it is also the way the species propogates and without said propogation, there’s no one to purchase all the crap we sell them. That’s why it’s important to continue it.

    That said, harsh colleague has a point — no parent should be seen as receiving favorable treatment for the simple reason of being a parent. You need to be reliable in your job, no matter your personal circumstances.

    What I find irritating among colleagues is the assumption that I am not working if I’m at home with someone who is sick. Bullshit. I’ve had conference calls, worked on documents, emailed with vendors and coworkers, and otherwise conducted business as usual. Often, they don’t even know I’ve been out of the office until someone mentions it. Only at that point do they snort, “sick kid again?” To which I reply, in theory “‘eff you. You spend as much (or more) time dicking around on Nordstroms.com, trying to figure out how to sleep with someone in management to get ahead or fantasy football at work as I do dealing with kid issues. You leave the office at 6:30 and don’t do another thing. I leave at 5:30, get home, make dinner, and work from 7-10. Don’t presume to know how much I do because, unless you are my boss, you don’t know.”

  5. Harsh Colleague again

    I would never snort “kid sick again?” if my coworkers are just working from home because of that. Now, I would certainly say something and roll my eyes each time I hear sick kids as the excuse for performance or when I hear “the poor is the mother of (any number) of kids”.

    On the other hand, the fact that someone does not have kids and therefore can spend their time and money differently shouldn’t make them the target of your “nordstroms.com” comment… ;)

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  7. bridget

    To “A” Harsh Colleague:

    Your attitude is so sad. You care more about dogs than you do people… what a lonely world you must live in. I know women like you and most of them are successful with their careers but complete failures with their relationships. What about those mothers that were left widowed after 911… some were at one time stay at home mothers of three and are now forced into the work place, not by choice, struggling to make ends meet, trying to balance work and family. What is your attitude towards those working mothers harsh Collegeau???????

  8. Heiddi

    First, I have to admit that at a previous job, I fibbed. Then again, I didn’t want to be in an environment where being a parent is like a black mark. For working moms, it’s just plain hard and instead of criticizing, I say colleagues should help. One co-worker gave me the name of a preschool closer to said job that made my life easier. I also made it a point to find a place that was family-friendly. FOr working moms, that makes a HUGE difference, not only as a career woman, but as a parent. You get to do what you love and be the best mom you can. If anything, there should be more family-friendly companies and organizations that accept and encourage working parents. Period. Just my two cents. :)

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  10. mella

    And so if your dog gets hit by a car or poisoned or beat up or just plain sick to the point of being so ill, he or she can’t be left alone, where does that leave you?

  11. nemesis4

    Just came across this thread. This is to Harsh Colleague:

    What a fascinating couple of posts. Allow me, please, to share my story.

    I used to work at a five-person company where there was a woman named Betty who didn’t want children. Instead, she and her husband kept four dogs, two birds, fish, a big lizard that ate rats, and a horse at a stable near her home. Occasionally she would have the frozen rats delivered to our office so that she could take them home for the lizard.

    She would come in and tell us about her pets, crying if something was going wrong, and I honestly did not mind at the time. “Otto is sick again.” “I got a new dog named Fluffy and he was mistreated by his previous owners.” “So-and-so has a hairball . . .” or whatever the case may be. I would always ask about the animal, how he/she was doing, and she would happily tell me. I love animals, grew up with cats, and I used to like Betty, so I cared. Understandably, she would leave for vet appointments, come in late or leave early because of a dog, or go to pick up medicine for one pet or another.

    She would bring in one of her dogs to the office pretty regularly because she would set the animal’s grooming appointment for 10:30 a.m., and it wasn’t worth coming to work at 9:00, only to leave an hour later for home to get the dog for the appointment. A couple of times she left for three days to take her horse to a university at the other end of the state because there was something wrong with his eye, and they specialized in horse care there.

    Now to 2002, the year my first child was born: The very first time I dropped my son off at daycare when he was three months old, I walked into the office with tears in my eyes. I cried for three minutes, tops, and then stopped. I knew the facility was a good place as I had researched it, but I was still upset. Four months later, during an argument with a male colleague (not boss) in the office, he said, “And Betty tells me that you cried when you dropped your son off at daycare for the first time. If you can’t handle it, then you should just stay home.” This colleague had been out of the office on the day I dropped my son off at daycare, and he wouldn’t have known I came in upset if Betty hadn’t told him. This woman, who regaled everyone with stories about her pets for years, and herself came in crying about them, had the audacity to run to this guy and “tell” on me because I showed a little emotion about my son. To let you know, the entire time I worked at that place, I never once discussed my personal life with my colleagues, and that included after I became a mom. Nor did I set any of his doctor’s appointments on weekdays; they were all done on weekends.

    I am no longer working at that company. My boss terminated my position a year after I went back to work after maternity leave. I never had any problems until December 2001, when my pregnancy began to show. I endured snide little comments here, subtle put-downs there, and finally outright hostility.

    It is absolutely imperative to be responsible in your job despite your personal circumstances. I have found, however, that there is an assumption that parenthood automatically makes you irresponsible in the workplace, and I see this attitude persisting. There is something in our society that makes in unacceptable for a working woman or man to also be a parent. And maybe it’s always been there. Even before I went into the workforce years ago, my own father told me, “When you begin working in an office, never put family pictures on your desk. You won’t be taken seriously. You have to show you’re always there for the company.”

    Now, what if you had an elderly parent who is sick and needs care? You would certainly be there for him/her, no doubt. You would probably require and be granted a flexible schedule to be there for your mom or dad. An ailing parent who can no longer care for him/herself is like a child, after all. And your employer would certainly not sigh out loud, roll his eyes and shake his head, as I have experienced as a mother, because you have to go home to care for your mom or dad. I highly doubt that you would experience the same treatment that I and some (not all) working parents have experienced from employers because of our children. I don’t know what world you live in where the attitude is, “Poor mother of three,” or where anyone would use children as an excuse for not getting the job done. I know that I have experienced contempt, and the last thing I would do is blame motherhood for poor work performance.

    Here are three scenarios. Which one, in your view, is the “unacceptable” scenario?

    “My dog is sick. I have to be home with him. I have to go pick up his prescription. I have to drive him to his doctor’s appointment because he can’t drive himself.”

    “My dad is sick. I have to be home with him. I have to go pick up his prescription. I have to drive him to his doctor’s appointment because he can’t drive himself.”

    “My son is sick. I have to be home with him. I have to go pick up his prescription. I have to drive him to his doctor’s appointment because he can’t drive himself.”

    Really now. What’s the difference?

  12. Another perspective

    I wanted to comment because the previous poster (Nemesis4) seems to believe that the issue of elder care and the time it takes you away from the office is more acceptable to employers than child care. I can tell you from personal experience that is not always the case. In fact, I found my former employer was far more understanding of my colleagues who were working mothers than of me as the sole caretaker of an elderly parent. I think a lot has to do with the personal experiences of the manager. If they have children, they understand the challenge of working and raising children. If they don’t have an elderly parent at home, they easily dismiss the challenge and assume you can just “put them somewhere”. It’s really too bad we can’t all have a little more empathy for the personal demands that are or WILL be placed on all of us at some point in our lives and stop trying to weigh what type of demand merits more flexibility from the boss. The best workers always find a way to get the job done no matter what their schedule, the weakest workers waste everyone’s time monitoring and complaining about the breaks everyone else seem to be getting.

  13. E vero

    To Another Perspective: a beautifully articulated view, and absolutely true! Less clock-watching, finger pointing and whingeing and a little more getting on with it is definately what is called for. Isn’t it hard enough to be a professional working woman as well as a mother/pet-owner/ carer of elderly parents without doing battle with (often female, I find) colleagues and employers as well? How about we all take a more humanist view, stop judging and give each other a break?

  14. Joy Ocean

    @’Harsh’ Colleague

    Boy oh Boy or girl or girl. I will start off by saying this, my current therapist told me not to use words like stupid, idiot anymore and that I should try to articulate my feelings otherwise contrary to what i believe, the person will not know why I am angry. okay let me explain something to you my “dear” sister
    No one could have been anti child than I. I had two abortions and I hated the idea of marriage and children annoyed me and I simple hated them. I had a blog where 90% of the time, I wrote about my hatred for children, motherhood and marriage. Then my birth control failed and I had no money to do another abortion and my boyfriend who is now my husband begged me to have the child and get married. plus, I was never supposed to be able to have children if my previous gynecologist is to be believed. It was not an elective thing. some people like you think just because people have kids its always 100% an election. so children having children in third world countries is an election?(this is where I want to call you an idiot but I wont). In some countries young girls as young as 14 are made to marry and bear children. Just because your ovaries are not prompting you to have children does not mean some women do not feel the urge strongly. ( I want to call you an insensitive imbecile here but I wont). You have no idea what some people go through and therefore you should not be quick to judge people who are experiencing those problems.
    Now I have a one year old. Do you think I am happy when I am home with a child crying for 20 hours out of 24 and do you think I wont prefer to be at work and talk to mature people? I would prefer to talk to mature people. but I have to stay home with him when he is sick because his daycare will not take a sneezing coughing child. I love him more than you love your dogs considering I will never have him euthanized even if he could no longer walk or talk.

    You criticize because you are ignorant. I once was like you. but you need to walk in the shoes of others before you begin to judge and make calls from your narrow end of the tunnel.

  15. A working mother

    The majority of the posts here illustrate that a) many of us still have problems accepting diversity in all its forms, and b) that the workplace at large is still ruled by subjective decisions and emotions.

    I am a working mother. I have a boss who is childless, and makes no bones about it, and who has a dog she thinks of as her child. My co-workers are not confident that they will be treated non-judgmentally when requesting time off for child related things and try to avoid doing that. I have found myself simply omitting why I need the time off or just saying “a doctor’s appt.” Not “my child’s appt.”

    The reality is many women must work and choosing to have children shouldn’t adversely impact the life and/or careers of those women. It is unfair that those with elder care issues are also negatively impacted. Especially since the reality is many more of us will be caring for our elders in the near future. (Still others will have children returning to the nest as they discover they cannot find jobs that allow them to live on their own.)

    I want to point out to the posters who are childless, and appear unhappy with the status quo, that if we all decided not to have children the human race would die out fairly quickly. I’m not saying you should worship those of us who do bear children, but are you angry with the women who had children or the workplace that treats them ‘differently’?

    It’s long past time to have work-life balance in the workplace. I’m nearly 50 and this ‘discussion’ has been ongoing for at least 20 years. Perhaps we can turn this discussion and the energy in these posts into something constructive. How can we change the discussion into an action plan?