It’s hard to display executive presence when you’re a harried mom

Last week I had an important meeting; I had to represent my division at a cross-organizational working session with executives from other divisions, each two or even three levels above me, each male.

The night before the meeting, I felt a little tense. Not only would I be the junior person at the table (in title only, certainly not in age or years of work experience!), but these men frequently collaborate in other executive meetings. They are familiar with each other. They have the camaraderie of players on the same team. I am the water boy.

I had set my alarm much earlier than usual, the morning of the meeting, to ensure I would have time to actually dry my hair after showering and to make school lunches for my daughters before the long commute. As I stood at the bathroom mirror applying mascara, it occurred to me that none of the other people I’d soon be meeting with were doing the same thing – primping, to be blunt – in preparation for work. Then I returned to the kitchen to dig around in the refrigerator for some items to throw in the crockpot. It would be late when I picked up my hungry children and arrived home, and I knew there wouldn’t be time to cook. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the men I’d soon be meeting were thinking about dinner preparations as they headed off to work. (Now in fairness to the man in my house, I must disclose that while I was drying my hair, he was unloading the dishwasher and cleaning up the kitchen from the night before.)

An hour later, as I walked up to the office building and reached out to open the door, my phone rang. Caller ID let me know immediately that it was the elementary school. One of my daughters was in the nurse’s office with a stomach ache – in great pain. I was 35 miles away and about to step into an important meeting. I knew my husband had a work day where he would be unavailable, but I quickly called him anyway and explained the situation. “I think I need to go get her,” I said. “Go to your meeting and I’ll take care of it,” he assured me. He did, of course. I joined the meeting – though not fully present as I waited for him to text me the status.

Sometimes I despair of my ability to advance my career. How can I expect to climb the corporate ladder when my “other job” is as demanding of my time? I am often unwilling to trade off time with my family for work. I have left business trips early because of sick children. I have scheduled meetings around the Halloween parade or back-to-school night.

Every single hour of the day I’m time-slicing. When I’m at work, my “talk track” is reminding me to reschedule a child’s orthodontist appointment or to pick up sandwich bread on the way home. At home, I silently rehearse my sales training presentation while I sit at the dinner table with my children. My work computer holds an Excel spreadsheet that I use to plan 10 weeks of summer camp for my 8 year olds. My personal computer holds a presentation I’ve been working on for a trade show.

Over the past year, frustrated with my career stagnation yet unwilling to give up time with my family for advancement, I’ve been asking every woman I know “is it possible to move forward in your career when you are parenting school-age children – without giving up too much of what is precious?” While there are some very public exceptions (yes, I’m talking about you Sheryl Sandberg), the resounding answer has been “no!”

Then today I witnessed something I truly had never seen before in my 25 year career in high tech.

I went to my company’s executive briefing center to deliver a presentation to a customer. The customer team had flown into town the night before, and when I entered the room they were talking about where the sales team had taken them for dinner. (It was churrascaria and, having experienced it myself on a business trip to Sao Paolo, we made some small talk about the experience as I was setting up my computer.) Just then the district sales manager walked into the room to introduce himself to this important customer.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t join you for dinner last night,” he said. “I had to go home and relieve the nanny.”

Wait, what?

He went on to explain that his wife also had a business meeting the night before, and since he’d worked the couple of nights prior, it was his turn to stay at home so she could attend her meeting. The customers around the table, all men, nodded their heads in understanding and started peppering him with questions. “What kind of work does she do?” “How many children do you have?” “How old are they?” One of the customers shared that his wife was due to deliver their 4th child in just a few weeks. Incredulity…and more questions. “How old are your other children?” “How is it that you could travel this close to her due date?” “How do you manage with so many children?”

You have to understand that I work in a rather macho industry (data center technology) and at a rather traditional company within this industry (all of our top executives are men – mostly white, mostly gray-haired). For most of my career I’ve felt the need to downplay my motherhood. I have minimal photos and children’s drawings displayed at my desk, don’t tell stories at work of the adorable things my daughters say, am discrete about leaving early to watch my child’s softball game or take her to the orthodontist. I’ve felt, rightly or wrongly, that if I were more forthcoming about my other job, then I would be taken less seriously at my paid job. I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Yet I found it immensely encouraging that this sales executive could speak so candidly about his own juggling. And that it was so well received by the other men in the room.

What may have been “one small step” for this man was, as far as I’m concerned, “one giant leap for mankind.” When men can speak honestly in the workplace about how important their family is, when they openly talk about an occasion where they chose family needs over work, that makes it OK for all of us to be more genuine.

I’m not going to run out tomorrow and start applying for Vice President of Marketing positions – let’s get real. But I’m a lot more encouraged that we’re all going in the right direction.

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4 Responses to It’s hard to display executive presence when you’re a harried mom

  1. Dawn says:

    This sounds like the story of my life – my husband and I are in constant negociations about who does what – with both of us in very demanding jobs. It’s nice to know we are not alone!! Your blog is great, I love reading your stories :).

  2. eemusings says:

    That is encouraging. The question, I guess, is what would the reaction if that had been a woman instead of a man? Would they have been as understanding?

  3. Fourth Breakfast says:

    I like this. I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about how they are “making it work” with school age children. It’s only been recently that Sheryl Sandberg has “admitted” to leaving every day at 5:30pm. I find it more illuminating that her husband admits to the same thing. And that they are both home for dinner about 4 days a week. It’s easier for them though. People have to re-arrange schedules around them. It’s harder when you’re low on the totem pole and can’t afford in-house help, etc.

    I’m only just now realizing how difficult it is to have an actual career and a young child. The full time job part? Challenging. A progressive, demanding career? Whew.

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