I sat in a workshop session yesterday, one that started a little too early for my taste. But still, I was there, right on time, early though it was. One of the speakers, however, was not. He was running late, we were told. When he finally did show up, breathless and a little rumpled looking, he made several jokes about being on "dad duty" while his wife was out-of-town. He'd managed to get the kids fed, and off to school but he conveyed--willingly and in a comic way--that this had been a major feat on his part. The audience laughed along with him. They found his self-deprecating jokes about his parental incompetence endearing, I could tell. They forgave him being late. How could he be faulted? There he was, a bumbling but well-meaning dad, who was doing the best he could.
But, I wondered, how would the audience have felt if the speaker had been a mother, not a dad? What if an equally frazzled mom had presented herself--late--at the podium, perhaps with a slight smear of spit-up on one shoulder, or some other tell-tale mark that would tangibly denote motherhood to the public eye? Would her lateness have been endearing? Charming? Or would they have seen her as just another working mom, trying to do it all, trying to present a professional self when couldn't everyone see she was a mom, late as usual, her mind still rooted too firmly in a daycare or preschool drop-off to be of any use that morning?
My kids spend a lot of time at my husband's office. In fact, they spend more of their off-time, or sick days there than they do with me. Children aren't allowed at my place of work, despite the fact that since its establishment in 1867 I know countless children lived many moments of their formative years running across the lawn by the campus chapel, or playing hide-and-seek among the bushes. They watched family members hungrily seize the opportunities a college presented to them and somewhere, in their young and still growing minds, was planted a seed to one day take root: that they could do it to, of course--go to college, read everything they could get their hands on, wear a lab coat and conduct experiments, walk across a graduation stage. One day they could go to college, too. It bothers me that my kids are growing up with a good, positive sense of what their dad does for a living, yet they are growing up with a shadowy, uncertain sense of this place where I work--this place where kids aren't allowed.
One day a few years ago I picked L. up from Scott's office. L. was just three at the time, and when I came to get him I found a little gathering of two or three faculty members and students right outside of his office door. They were enjoying the sight of L., "working" at Scott's desk with his pencils and paper.
"It's so cute to see him at work with dad," one of Scott's colleagues said.
"I love seeing him here," another gushed. "I love seeing dads bringing their kids to work!"
I've never forgotten that exchange of words that day. Wrapped up in the gushing and the open endorsement of my son's presence there, on campus, in his father's office, was my own painful awareness that the sight of my small son, "working" at his Mama's desk would not be viewed in quite the same way. For a woman who brings her child to work is perceived as a woman who is trying too hard to have it all; a woman who can't do her job as effectively with kids in tow; a woman who has compromised her professional abilities by daring to mingle--for one messy moment--her personal life with her work life.
It's a mother load to bear, that's for sure; whether we like it or not.