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I Had No Sympathy for Working Moms Till I Became One

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Sometimes, when I think about Aurelie*, I remember that she was always the first person in the office, or that she wore a tailored, gray blazer with jeans and knew how to tie a cheap scarf in ways that made it seem expensive. But mostly I think about how she was a struggling new mom and I misunderstood her and casually contributed to her marginalization. Even more than a decade later, when I think about the attitude I had about her, it is with a sense of shame that has stuck with me, preserved like a lab specimen in formaldehyde that I can’t help but turn round and round.

At 27, I thought I was nowhere near having children. I worked in advertising, saw at least one movie per week, had a well-used locker at Equinox, and went everywhere on a bike that was continually pillaged for parts on my Lower East Side block. Like many people I knew then, I kept busy taking micro-steps toward “adulting” (as it is now sometimes called by my 27-year-old co-workers): teaching myself to cook, managing bills, traveling. I worked all the time because it seemed like a tangible demonstration of ambition. I wanted to do bigger and better work, so I modeled the behavior of the men in charge.

There were three or four women on my team of about 20 people at the company where I worked. Aurelie was one of the few who had a baby. At 35, she seemed ancient — light years ahead of me in terms of life choices. She’d been at the company since she was my age, and proved herself on several accounts. By the time I started working there she was already a mom, and — though it never occurred to me to question it — she was not in a leadership position. In fact, she was handed the least glamorous projects of all, which she took on with a kind of passive gratitude that confused me. I mistook it for complacency, or worse, laziness.

Aurelie had an office in which she sat in a state of hyper-focused quiet, all day. At 6:25 on the dot she disappeared. She left the lights on, the door open, even a bag on her desk sometimes. But she was nowhere to be found. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she was trying make it seem as if she were still in the building. My projects required working till midnight multiple times a week. As I watched the sun go down between the midtown blocks, from the high window of my office, I knew I had a long night ahead of me, and all I could see was that she wasn’t there.

I wish I could say that I stood up for her when my co-workers made dismissive comments or didn’t invite her to meetings. Instead I have to admit that I participated in the casual disapproval. Even though I was never outright cruel to her, I know that I never viewed her as a person to take seriously. I considered her unambitious; I judged her choices, and felt superior to her because she didn’t seem to want to run projects or move up. Though it was never explicitly stated, the big boss seemed to consider her a charity case. To be clear, she was a hardworking person who got her work done in the hours between 8:30 and 6:30 — a ten-hour day, no less! Those of us who’d worked till 11 p.m. would arrive around 10 a.m., get coffee, and start work in earnest around 11:30. We’d take lunch at two. We were less efficient than Aurelie by far.

Not long after I turned 28, I got pregnant unexpectedly, with twins. I decided to go forward with the pregnancy because of other health-related issues, and because my doctor thought this might be my only chance at having children. And though I wasn’t really ready for it, I did want to be a mom.

To say that I considered this a career apocalypse wouldn’t be an overstatement. Since college I had worked for gay men with no kids. Or straight men with no kids. Or men with kids they never seemed to see. A few of the men had children, but they spoke about them so infrequently that it was as if they didn’t have any at all. I worked with one man for a whole year before learning he had a child. Certainly, people are entitled to share or withhold whatever personal information they want from their colleagues — but the overall effect was that, as a newly pregnant person, I had no models to follow.

Except for Aurelie. Suddenly desperate for guidance, I looked at her with fascination and despair. I didn’t want to quit, and I didn’t relish the idea of staying and begging for the scraps, as I thought she had done. I finally started asking her loads of questions. It was then I learned the lengths she had gone simply to keep her job. She was the breadwinner, the one who provided her family with health insurance. She and her husband had moved two blocks from the office so she could have a quick walking commute. She sometimes left for 30 minutes around 1, to rendezvous with her nanny in a nearby office park, just so she could see her kid for a cumulative total of two hours a day. In retrospect, I can see now that her job security depended on never once calling attention to her status as a parent. Before I became pregnant and invested in my own survival, I didn’t have a clue what she was going through just to maintain her life. I was not alone: Absolutely no one seemed to care about her situation.

During the last year, men in power have been compelled to affirm their empathy for the women in their lives — most recently, when Donald Trump’s accusers prompted Republicans like Mitt Romney to tweet, “Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters.” Of course, we should expect the men around us to be able to understand that women with whom they do not have personal relationships are also human. But my experience with Aurelie made me realize that, unfortunately, empathy is not always a default setting. Like a dad who becomes a feminist when he has a daughter, I became an ardent supporter of paid maternity leave once I was drowning in diapers and fearful that I would not have a job to return to. I hadn’t even gotten to the stage of wondering how I would possibly be able to do my job if and when I returned.

My mother was very fond of saying, “When you’re a mom, you’ll understand,” about most things we disagreed on. And she was right. It didn’t make me agree with her about everything, but it did expand my capacity for empathy. As I sat nursing two babies in the middle of the night, never getting more than 45 consecutive minutes of sleep for months on end, I would think of Aurelie, coming to the office morning after morning: How tired she probably was, and how for a long time I had no idea how hard she was working just to keep her head above water.

I did eventually claw my way back into a career. I cannot go back in time and correct my stance toward Aurelie, or try to change the culture of the office where we worked, to advocate for the right to leave at a decent hour and still be taken seriously. But I can at least try my best to create a more family-friendly work environment in my current role. As far as I can tell, parents don’t work less, they just need more flexibility (the truth is, we all probably do). I can allow my fellow moms on staff that. I can advocate for them to have longer leave.

Now, when I am struggling, trying to balance it all — when, let’s say, every member of my family needs to go to the doctor in the same week for unrelated reasons, or I am saddled with extra projects on a weekend — I remind myself that my childless colleagues do not know what it’s like, and they don’t really care. I don’t blame them for it: It’s very hard to care about what you don’t know. That was me, not that long ago.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

I Had No Sympathy for Working Moms Till I Became One