How to talk to working moms: The do’s and don’ts

I run my own law firm, and I’m a mother of two. Both of these aspects of my life are central to my identity. I have questioned whether my children would be better off if I were home full time. However, I love the highs and lows of a courtroom practice, and I feel honored to help my clients through incredibly difficult periods in their lives. I know the fulfillment from my work makes me a better mom when I am with my children. And, because my work affects my clients’ children, I know I am better at my job because I have children.

Cheryl Sandberg referenced a study in Lean In that I take great comfort in:

“In 2006, the researchers released a report summarizing their findings, which concluded that ‘children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others.’ They found no gap in cognitive skills, language competence, social competence, ability to build and maintain relationships, or in the quality of the mother-child bond.”

However, at times, I feel as if people are judging me for my choices. In fact, Pew research found that 51% of survey respondents said kids are better off when their mother is home full-time.

I find this Pew study sad in part because research does not back this view and because working mothers are an important part of our society who very much need our support. If you want to be supportive of working mothers, here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind:

Don’t: Ask a working mom anything you wouldn’t ask a man

For some reason, it feels like people, in general, don’t think twice about asking a woman questions about their family and personal life when they would never pose these same questions to a man in a business setting. This can be insulting and frustrating. Some common questions to avoid are:

  • Where are your children?
  • Who keeps your kids while you work?
  • How do you balance it all?

Working moms get these types of questions on a daily basis. Ask yourself before asking a woman one of these questions if you would ask the same question of a man in the office setting. If the answer is no, then don’t ask. Instead, consider asking men these very questions. It involves men in the discussion of family and children more and lets them know that society in general values the time they spend with their kids just as much as we value their contributions to their job. Knowing that men are being asked these same questions makes it easier for women to feel like they can share.

Do: Ask a working mom what is currently frustrating her and what is bringing her joy

Sometimes people just need to vent. Women have been “trained” to feel like showing emotions makes them appear weaker, so many women are very guarded in sharing what may be causing them stress. Asking directly to share what’s bothering them can be off-putting sometimes, so what’s the best way to approach this?

Go into conversations being fully aware that parenting brings a lot of joy, but it also brings a lot of vomit, food on the floor, and all-nighters. Show a true interest in the things that she is already sharing with you and especially the things that bring her joy. Ask questions when she shares things about her kids or her hobbies. Be careful though to avoid clichés and patronizing comments. A well-meaning “cherish these moments” comment can be the last thing a tired mom needs to hear. Listen and sympathize when you can. Also, understand that working moms know all too well that they are missing special moments with their kids. Reiterating that, with well-meaning comments can induce guilt and frustration.

Do: Share your own parenting war stories

There’s something very comforting about knowing that you’re not alone in your struggles. As you open up, and talk more to the working moms in your life, feel free to share your own war stories. The peeing contests your children had, the time your son pulled down his pants in public to show off his new underwear, the time you looked away and your daughter rolled off your bed. These stories reinforce the fact that we, as moms, are not alone. Parenthood can be a messy journey filled with many highs and lows.

Keep in mind when you share these stories that you show support and camaraderie and are not trying to attempt to further your own opinion on the best way to parent.

Remember just because something worked for your children, doesn’t mean it will work for someone else’s.

Don’t: Tell them that only a mother can handle [fill in the blank]

Whether it’s potty training, taking care of sick kids, doctor visits, or bedtime routines, don’t buy into the myth that only a mom can handle certain things. The burden of sick days, pediatrician visits, and many other aspects of childcare often fall to working moms, but as a society, we need to get out of the mindset that only moms can do these things; other people can and should help, including dads, babysitters, relatives, and other caregivers.

Let’s stop sending the message to dads that they are not as capable of caring for children; maybe dads cannot breastfeed, but they can do just about anything else. Getting this mindset shifted will benefit working moms, the companies they work for, their clients, and society as a whole. Letting others participate in the care of their children gives benefits to both the caregivers and the children. Our children will love seeing more people surround them and support them and will benefit from seeing a more equal gender division of labor.

Do: Ask a working mom what her time constraints are

Even though you shouldn’t pigeonhole a mom into the role of sole caregiver, you still have to bear in mind that this may be her situation. She could be the only one to care for sick children, pick up from daycare, and if she has a baby, she may be pumping or breastfeeding as well. Be sure to ask her what time she needs to leave to pick up the children and tell her to let you know if she needs to take a break. She may need to pump milk or work from home because of a sick child. Also, make sure that a late afternoon meeting doesn’t mean an extra fee at daycare, or leaves her scrambling for after daycare childcare.

Working moms do need to speak up when they need to leave to pick up children or take a break, but they may be afraid that they will be seen as less committed to the job or somehow penalized. Giving her the opening to speak up about these time constraints is a great way for others to show support.

Don’t: Discount the productivity that a working mom can bring

Many working moms find that they are more productive than they were before they had children because they are more organized. They’re used to working against deadlines, knowing they have to get projects finished before daycare closes or because they don’t want to take unnecessary work home with them. You’ll likely find working moms to be some of the hardest workers and most productive members of your company.

Nanda Davis founded the Davis Law Practice, in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2014. While she currently focuses on family law, she also has handled numerous criminal matters and has served as a guardian ad litem for children. As a mom herself, she knows how stressful matters involving children are and takes extra time to help clients understand the legal process and feel prepared to face their adversaries.