Last week, when I heard Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer was going to put a ban on telecommuting, I didn’t get why it caused such an uproar. I kind of admire Mayer for making that call. I’m a working mother. I have a special needs child. And I do not work from home.
I work for one of the largest media companies in the world, a place ranked as one of the best places to work for women , specifically working mothers. And I suppose that is true – but, only for some mothers.
Shared Motherhood, Different Lifestyles
My boss and I were pregnant at the same time. We are about the same age. We have the same hour-long commute – except in opposite directions. When my boss entered her sixth month of pregnancy, she started working from home two days a week. I worked almost to the end.
In my eighth month of pregnancy, there was a transit strike. During those few days, I came into the office with my husband (a FedEx employee) who drove into work with his coworkers. I was in the office by 6 in the morning and didn’t leave until after six in the evening – when my husband got out of work. I did this for several days – with no overtime, not even a thank you for making the effort to come in. At this point, my boss was working remotely five days a week.
I returned to work from maternity leave in early May, my boss did too – except she worked remotely for another month before returning to the office. I left my baby with a neighbor, while she had a nanny coming to her house. When my boss returned to work, she explained that she would be working remotely two days a week. She was breastfeeding and needed the time to bond with her child.
Two years later, my boss stopped breastfeeding, but continued to work remotely. Her son was enrolled in classes during the week and she wanted to be as involved as possible. “These are the most important years – I want to be there for him as much as I can,” she said.
I would have liked that option too. But, I came into the office 5 days a week – if I worked through my lunch, I was allowed to leave at 4:30 instead of 5:30.
No Flexible Options for Most
When my son was diagnosed with autism, I went into my boss’ office – crying, overwhelmed and uncertain of what to do. My son’s therapy required 15 – 20 hours per week of home-based therapy. I remember asking if I could work from home temporarily – at least one day a week so that I could be involved and he could get the maximum amount of therapy. My boss explained that working from home could not be an option for me – “Your job requires you to be in the office,” she said. The best she could do was reduce my work hours, which would impact my salary and vacation time. It was an option I couldn’t afford.
I was lucky I had my mother who was willing to help, that my husband worked less hours (making less money) and that I found a therapist willing to work later hours in the day, so I can at least catch the last thirty minutes of her therapy sessions.
Our sons are now seven years old, and my boss still works from home two (sometimes three) days a week. On her work-from-home days, she gets to take her son to school and pick him up. She schedules medical appointments, signs her son up for after-school activities, volunteers at her son’s school as a helping parent, and chaperones class trips and runs errands.
On her “work-from-home” days, she takes care of all the things that require me to take vacation time.
Having a child with special needs requires many appointments; many of my vacation days are spent sitting in waiting rooms. If the tables were reversed – if my boss’ son had special needs – she’d never take a vacation day for an appointment. She’d never have to choose between working and being there for her child; she’d get to be involved in everything.
Earlier this year, my son’s school bus company was on strike. My son’s school is more than twenty miles away from our home and with limited options, I was forced to choose between going to work and sending my son to school. Within two weeks, I took four vacation days, struggling to get my son to and from school.
With no idea how long the strike would last, I asked my boss about options. I knew better than to ask for a work from home option but in such an extreme case, it would have been a great option to have. Once again, there was nothing my boss could do except offer me time off without pay. And then we discussed her schedule for the following week – she was switching her work from home days because it was her son’s birthday and she was going to his school to celebrate. (Insensitive much?)
Working From Home a Privilege, for Some
Working from home is a privilege, a luxury offered to a woman like my boss – a working mother with a six-figure salary who has a nanny, a housekeeper and a husband with a six-figure salary. And my boss has me – an administrative assistant – who faxes and photocopies her son’s insurance forms, prints out her holiday card labels and other personal things that have absolutely nothing to do with the company. She doesn’t have time for these things, she says.
My boss isn’t the only working mother in our office who has the privilege to work from home and be there for her children. Other high level executives have that option, while their assistants come into the office five days a week, leaving their children with babysitters, daycare centers, and after-school programs. To say this blatant inequality in the office causes resentment and animosity among working mothers is an understatement. The message sent to the lower income working mothers? Some women’s children matter and others don’t.
I know this isn’t the reasoning behind Marissa Mayer’s decision to have all employees return to the office. But this ‘uproar about working mothers’ speaks only to a certain demographic of women. Unless companies are willing to provide all employees with the option to work from home and/or flexible work arrangements, then it shouldn’t be offered at all.