The working mother’s walk of shame

The working mother's walk of shame

One of my female colleagues, let’s call her Fran, has two sons. We’ve wanted to grab a coffee since I returned from maternity leave months ago. I bumped into Fran at the printer recently and mentioned our yet to eventuate coffee date. Fran replied basically that she didn’t feel she could pop out for a coffee because she already does the working mother’s walk of shame. I laughed, awkwardly. Yikes, that’s a guilt laden statement.

What Fran means, about doing the working mother’s walk of shame, is she leaves the office at 5pm. Me too! That’s actually our scheduled knock off time, after that you’re working for free the love of the job. But Fran and I, and every other working mother have a marathon involving pick-ups, dinner, homework and baths, when we leave the office. We shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving at 5pm, at that point you can rightly go home. This feeling of guilt, about leaving the office while our younger colleagues plod on, isn’t new.

While we should ditch the idea of the working mother’s walk of shame, I get it. As you make a quick exit from the office, as subtly as possible to avoid unwanted attention, you feel the disapproving glares. Some mother’s even resort to stashing their coat by the elevator so no one can watch them get ready to leave.

The culture of hours

There seems to be a strange culture that you have to be seen to be in the office to be a valued and hardworking employee. Almost as if being the last to leave the office makes you the hardest worker. Yet this assumption, that being in the office equals lots of quality work and high productivity, isn’t necessarily well founded. Surely after a certain point people cease to focus properly? My younger colleagues work longer hours but does that mean they are more productive? I’ve noticed Facebook on computer screens, arriving late and eating breakfast at desks, long lunch breaks, chit chat about which type of tea to brew. I have absolutely no issue with that but us working mum’s shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving work at 5 when we’ve been head down and bum up with our work all day.

You make a valuable contribution

Here’s the thing, I work part time. Do I feel guilty about that? Not really. To work more than I do, with three kids and an ambitious husband would simply place too much pressure on the family. Plus, I actually like hanging out with my kids. As a part timer, you do your absolute best to cram an awful lot of work in on the days you are in the office. You become expert at setting priorities, delegating, basically getting shit done in the time you have. I’d hazard a guess that the non-parents in the office aren’t as skilled at that. Yet I suspect few people consider that part-timers are highly effective employees.

You’ve been the person working late

Once upon a time, before kids, you were the person still sitting in the office when the lights went out. There was a time when if your boss declared someone would need to stay back late, you were the one who put their hand up. Even now, I’ll bet there are times you fire up the laptop and keep on working at home. Or take calls on your days off. Ironically, overtime is deadly, so doing less of it is a great thing!

Why is it the working mother’s walk of shame

When a Dad leaves work early or on time, he may feel a little guilt about the email he didn’t reply to or the phone call he didn’t make. But I’m pretty certain his colleagues aren’t looking down their noses at him. They are more likely to be thinking, what a great Dad, helping out with the kids. His kids, the ones he has parental responsibility for. The other thing is, if we want to reduce the concept of the working mother’s walk of shame, more men need to actually start logging off and heading out the door to either collect the kids or get their butts home to help out.

When you head out the door do you feel like you’re doing the working mother’s walk of shame?


30 thoughts on “The working mother’s walk of shame

  1. I have so done the working mother’s walk of shame! But I have reached the point where I don’t really care. In one part time role I worked in, when I eventually left, they had to hire a full timer and a part timer to get through the volume of work I would complete. It’s all about head down, bum up and not taking long lunch breaks!

  2. I must say my work really is fantastic. Nearly every person in my team works flexible hours – they’re either part time, work from home or both. I work one day per week from home and the latest you’ll find me in the office is 4:30. BUT even though my colleagues/superiors are fine with this I still put pressure on myself to do more, to commit to more than what I can realistically achieve. I’m about to log in at home to send some emails and write a paper due tomorrow, all because I said I could when really I shouldn’t have answered the phone after I left work on Wednesday!

    1. I do think a great deal of the ‘mummy guilt’ about leaving early depends on your workplace. Sometimes we’re suckers for punishment!

  3. My office has a flexible work policy but what that really means is I leave the office at 4.30pm knowing full well I’ll do another couple of hours work after the kids are in bed!

  4. Oh yes! I do the walk every day at 4:30pm. We have a flexible working policy too which is great but in practice it’s really challenging working part time or flexibly when the rest of your team are traditional full timers.

  5. I wonder about the industry too? I have no basis of comparison, but in teaching- as long as you are at the compulsory meetings and PD its pretty ok to leave at the end of the school day…. BUT you HAVE to be there by 8am at the latest, you can’t really leave during the day, and you work more at home than you do at school, and I would have to put my own kids into school holiday programs in order to meet the planning and meeting needs in the school holidays… day to day it works to leave early. But you still end up working 50-60 hrs a week, late nights and weekends trying to balance all the kids in your life, your biological ones and your school ones!

    1. The industry absolutely makes a difference I reckon, mine isn’t known for being family friendly! It’s interesting because teaching is seen by many as being great for families, yet every teacher I know makes the exact points you do!

  6. I work part time, but when I’m at work I’m working, not chatting, not walking go the coffee shop for mid morning coffees, not discussing weekend plans. If I were a boss I would actually be employing more part timers because I honestly believe we are more productive.

  7. I didn’t to back to an office after my daughter was born for precisely these reasons – but I still end up feeling guilty if I have to say to clients that I can’t work or take calls certain days/hours as they’re not my “work” times – and this is even though I’ve told them in advance of taking on projects that I have set days and hours for work. I feel unprofessional for having to say I am with my child outside of those hours – like it makes me less passionate about my work.

    1. It’s frustrating, the implication that because you are spending time with you’re child you aren’t committed or passionate about your work!

  8. This is a really great article Claire – I’m going to share with my friend at Working Mums Collective… When I returned to work from maternity leave I generally worked 8-4 and all through my breaks to pick up my daughter on time. And yes there were always teachers who would stay much later – that’s the thing with a job that doesn’t have set hours. I still felt that I did my job well and worked hard for those 2 days a week!

    1. Oh thanks Lauren, that is very kind of you. I totally agree that you can achieve a great deal, and work hard, when doing part time work. It’s not some kind of slack option!

  9. I’m not a parent and in my last job working in a government department, I made sure I left at 5 or latest, 5:30. I’d only stay back once in a blue moon if I was falling behind in my paperwork. I did this because I needed a work-life balance. It was healthy for me to leave at a reasonable time and have a social life or hit the gym or even just chill with my cats and computer. I did work with mothers and those who were not mothers. Interestingly, a couple of my other colleagues without kids (but older than me) chose to stay back till 6 or after. I didn’t get that. All the working parents — mums and dads — made sure they left at 5 on the dot. I think as long as you get your work done — parent or not — there shouldn’t be an expectation to stay back late. Because by then, you are not so productive any way.

    1. Agree with you entirely Sanch, unless there’s a pressing need, why work late? You’re unlikely to be productive and you’re sacrificing your own work life balance. Where is the sense in that?

  10. Yes! I totally get this. Even worse that i only work 2 days a week and the young ones comment as i leave on my second day “enjoy your long weekend!” Urgh, i wish it were that easy. They have NO idea what i’m going home to haha. Some days i’d rather be at work, at least i can pee in peace and with the door closed 😉

    1. Oh Kim, how I love your comment. My young colleagues say to me ‘enjoy your days off’. I’m thinking, day off?!? It’s easier to be at work!

  11. So this. I think I was just as, if not more, productive when I worked reduced hours in the workplace after having kids. But I do think we as women need to own this and call BS when people try to shame us.

    1. Hooray for increased productivity, I hear you! I agree with not putting up with the shaming, the trouble is that often it’s so subtle and therefore tricky pin point.

  12. I so do and wish I didn’t aseverything you’ve said makes perfect sense. When I went back to work after maternity leave, I felt this real need to prove myself. Maybe it was because I was already 3 months pregnant (that went down well!) or because I took on a new full-time role in the team, I just couldn’t shake off this need to prove I was the same as ‘pre-baby’. Which is ridiculous, right? Because the very fact they offered me a new role showed they had confidence in me, and in my skills. It wasn’t about them getting their ‘pound of flesh’. I’m off on maternity leave now with both my kids until April. I already know I’d like to go back to work part-time and can only hope we can find a suitable role for me. It’s funny because as a part-timer paid as such, I’d probably have no qualms about working my exact hours. So the same should go for everyone else – we’re paid for our expertise and what we can deliver in a certain time period. Everything else is ‘free’ to our employers but this means we’d be in debt to our kids for not being home for them on time. We’d never turn up to work late, and so we shouldn’t turn up home late either as this is the most important job of all.

    1. That really is such a great point, that if you are giving free time to your work you are in debt to your family. It’s an excellent way to think of it.

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