I Was Bullied at Work for Being a Mom
Despite women having a louder voice across political, social and business spectrums, mom bullying in the workplace remains a significant issue. And yes, it's 2019.
As if simply being pregnant didn't trigger enough stress, I also passed the time while growing my first daughter by fretting, panicking and sweating over the math of how — and if — my husband and I would manage once her status changed from "in utero" to "born". Had anyone also told me then that mom bullying was a thing, and that I'd end up being a victim of it at the job I labored harder at than actual labor, I may have spontaneously combusted.
The top position at the organization where I'd been on staff became available while I was trying to get pregnant. I didn't turn down the opportunity due to bad timing so much as I shunned a role that would have shifted even more of my time and focus away from the family I was endeavoring to grow. Armed with glowing performance reviews, a notable list of accomplishments, positive board feedback, and strong office relationships, I negotiated a maternity leave package that, on paper, gave me everything I wanted, which was to maintain my career while also being present during my baby's first year.
My daughter was with me on both days each week that I worked from the office. She hung out in her car seat, portable crib, or on me, and she mostly slept and rarely fussed (although she was fussed over frequently). On the days I worked from home, she was confined to any makeshift play station I could construct in between furiously attacking each work assignment with a vigor that could only be required of a professional clown.
I slogged more and harder on maternity leave than I ever did pre-baby. Most of the adventures I dreamed of having with my petite bundle of love sat collecting dust on the wishes-and-dreams shelf that was shoved in the corner to make way for my home office. In a pre-iPhone-everywhere world in the late 2000s, I never wanted to be too far from my computer; I figured churning out meaningful work and providing swift responses would assure colleagues I was not only honoring my flexible schedule but also exceeding the productivity expectations of a full-time employee.
Except neither the quality nor quantity of my work mattered at all. The deal I'd secured for myself (plus all future moms as well as a separate but generous policy for new dads) bred resentment and mistrust. Meetings I should have ran were scheduled secretly and purposefully held in my absence. Decisions that were in my purview to make, or at least have a say in, were settled without consulting me. My childless co-workers, and the couple of them who had older kids, went from being colleagues who had become friends that were like family, to the people who couldn't bother waiting until I turned around to roll their eyes at me.
By the time my daughter's first birthday came around, the smirks, systematic exclusion, and a negative shift in the narrative spoken about me evolved into full-blown workplace bullying. I was picked on and at until my position collapsed under itself. My character assassinated, I left to forge a full-time freelance career.
Understanding Mom Bullying
Carol Unger worked as VP, director of human resources at PARADE magazine for 16 years and while she never had an employee speak to her about parental conflicts, new moms often confided in her about their guilt when returning to work.
"I always assured them that their feelings were very normal and suggested that they give it a little more time," Unger said. "But I cannot recall a single instance where any female employee spoke to me about anyone at PARADE harassing them in any way because of parental conflicts."
A decade later, though, how we talk about moms at work has changed, with a broader vocabulary and a wider platform dedicated to listening more deeply and acting more meaningfully. Where there were once few avenues for professional women to use their voices to command more flexibility at the office, the dialogue now at least allows for a more open conversation.
Part of the issue is that women are underrepresented in all positions at work. According to LeanIn.org's 2018 Women in the Workplace study, women are also more apt to experience harassment and discrimination, which often comes as a result of being the lone person of her gender in the room. In 2007 Great Britain started an Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is recognized by the United Nations' National Human Rights Institution, in part to combat discrimination against pregnant women and moms at work. The group offers resources and guidance for employers to navigate the process, as well as support for those on the receiving end of the bullying.
While the United States has a Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is tied to the 1964 Civil Rights constituional amendment, in practice, most women who have felt wronged by virtue of being pregnant at work or having given birth know that the injustices can be subtle enough to fly under the human-resources radar. Given the circumstances, it's not difficult to understand why working moms struggle so mightily, although it doesn't mean there isn't a way out.
Taking Action Against Adult Bullying
Limor Weinstein, a New York-based parent coach and licensed mental health therapist, says it's important for women feeling bullied at work to write down what's happening to them in part to acknowledge their feelings about the situation.
"Really be honest with yourself," Weinstein said. "What we tell ourselves is the most important thing. Being aware of the problem and taking a minute to understand what's happening can help redirect the situation. Sometimes you have to accept that you can't change others — but you can change how you think."
Both women and men point to the need for companies to do more to create a safe and respectful work environment, with only 27% of employees saying that "managers regularly challenge biased language and behavior when they observe it."
"These numbers indicate the urgent need for companies to underscore that bad behavior is unacceptable and will not go overlooked," the LeanIn.org study states. "Leaders at all levels need to set the tone by publicly stating that (harassment) won't be tolerated and by modeling inclusive behavior."
Meredith C. Carroll is an Aspen, Colo.-based writer and op-ed columnist.