Three years ago, following a disastrous attempt to bring my children on a work trip that culminated in an ER visit, a cancelled meeting, and a bruised-but-fine child, an email pinged into my inbox from an editor I barely knew. She had heard about my daughter’s playground accident, she wrote, and was glad to hear all was fine in the end.
“But my heart just went out to you,” she continued, acknowledging my frustration at the struggle to balance career opportunities with engaged motherhood. Describing her own challenges as a working mother, she reassured me that it would get easier and that there would be “another bus in 15 minutes.” And then, at the end of her already-remarkable message, she wrote: “Keep the faith. Those of us who have groped our way along the rope bridge to the other side are standing here waving pom poms for you as you cross.”
After I read her note, I put my head down on my desk and cried. And then I printed out the email and taped it to my office wall, a reminder of the kindness of strangers and the promise of a smoother future, with a cheering crowd of moms to welcome me at its gates.
I already knew that other moms were at the core of my day-to-day-parenting survival, organizing summer camp carpools and Friday night dinner clubs, tucking my girls’ wayward tendrils into backstage headbands and shepherding them onto the metro on chaperoned field trips. One mom and I used to meet after work on a Greenwich Village street corner to hand off Ziploc bags of homemade baby food. “I’ve got broccoli and sweet potato,” I’d text her, and she’d run down from her apartment with bags of frozen, pureed pea ice cubes, swapping baggies with me while harried passersby raced for their trains.
But it took me over a decade of parenting to fully appreciate how much I rely on the support of workplace moms I don’t know very well — some of whom have children who are long grown. I don’t always agree with their advice — one senior colleague told me to always lie when I had to leave work to pick up a sick kid or go to a school play, for example — but I found that even the bad advice came from a place of solidarity that mattered.
Don’t get me wrong. All the emotional support in the world can’t make up for a lack of systemic policies that promote gender equity and reduce barriers to women’s workplace success, like paid family leave benefits, flexible work schedules, and affordable childcare. In my field of work, women hold over half of assistant professor jobs in U.S. universities, but less than a third of full professorships. And while having a baby boosts men’s careers, it is often considered a “career killer” for academic women.
But even with structures and policies that support working parenthood, climate matters. When one of my collaborators and I had babies within a few months of each other, we brought our infants to weekly research meetings with our team of graduate student interviewers. Months later, with the babies now ensconced in childcare arrangements, we held a final debriefing session to reflect on what we had learned from the research. To our surprise, the students related that the most important thing they took away was not the interviewing or coding skills we taught them, but the example we set of how to make motherhood and research work together. My colleague and I laughed out loud: we had not intentionally set out to socialize them, we explained, but were just trying to survive as new parents whose babies arrived mid-data collection.
Sometimes, it turns out, the way you change a culture is by changing a culture. So when a new colleague was due to have her first baby just as I launched a junior faculty mentoring workshop this year, I reached out to make sure she knew that the baby was not a barrier to any meetings she wanted to be part of while she was on leave. “There would be many willing arms here to hold the baby or push a stroller around while you present chapters of your work,” I wrote. Months later, she approached me in the hallway to tell me how much my note had meant to her.
“I printed it out and put it on my wall,” she admitted, and I gasped, pulling her into my office to show her my own taped-to-the-wall-note.
That taped email was supposed to be a reminder of what some distant future might bring. But I now realize that the moms that message described weren’t some imaginary future group. They had been there all along. And to the next generation of working moms, I say: I’m standing here with pom poms, at the ready.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is an Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University in Washington, DC. Her most recent book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream (Princeton University Press) was made possible by the pom pom-waving support of hundreds of working moms who came before.