Chemali, a former Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the UN, is founder and CEO of Greenwich Media Strategies, LLC.
A year ago today, I made the decision: I wanted to be The Boss. I wanted to start my own business, work from home and be flexible for my family. I was going to answer to me, set the schedule I wanted, pursue business based on the principles I valued and empower the next generation of women. And I was going to be the mother my children deserve at the same time.
I reflected on this during Mother’s Day — and remembered how, at my previous position, which was in the U.S. government, I worked a ridiculous number of hours and saw my toddler son for 15 minutes a day, if I was lucky. I was also pregnant with my second and had been made to feel as though my pregnancy and the three-month maternity leave I wanted to take was a burden.
Yet for as much as I suffered, I have that last job to thank for forcing me to become the career woman and mother I wanted to be. And now that I can do the work I love with the flexibility I need, I know for sure: The ability for women to be a mother and a leader at work — at the same time — comes down to the boss and the workplace culture the boss fosters.
Other women have written of the difficulties they faced in raising a family while in leadership roles, beginning most notably with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 piece, which argued that, “women still can’t have it all.” My friend and former boss, Ambassador Samantha Power, published a piece last year describing the challenges she faced and sacrifices made while trying to balance her role as Ambassador to the United Nations while having two young children. She accepted that not having work-life balance was the price of doing business. Their examples are not rare.
At one job, I worked through the night when I was 30 weeks pregnant. I landed in the hospital the next day because of early labor signs — one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I vowed never to put myself in that position again.
That’s not the life that working mothers or parents need to accept. Women can have it all. It’s time to demand it all louder.
We already know the reasonable and realistic steps bosses can take to be family-friendly: Allow employees to work from home more. Don’t schedule meetings after 6 p.m. or during the weekend. Ensure responsibilities are evenly distributed. Consider offering part-time work or job-sharing arrangements. These should be easy steps.
What’s harder is for bosses to change the culture. Bosses need to foster trust with employees and an understanding between them and among colleagues that work-life balance is important and expected.
Yet we have known this for a while now. And so, perhaps as a part of this effort, we could change something big: We could all observe Mother’s Day on the following Monday, too.
Bosses would have the opportunity to show their appreciation for working moms. Mothers could thank the colleagues who have helped them — like those who took on last-minute projects for me when I had to take my son to the emergency room, the teams I worked on that made sure work travel was evenly distributed, the bosses I had who supported me leaving at 5 p.m. and working from home while never questioning whether I would finish my work on time. Together, they could come up with better ways to make everything work for everyone. Taking this time at work could help support a broader movement to change the culture.
If the United States wants to continue having the strongest economy in the world, then it cannot afford to lose the 43% of women with children who leave the workforce. And according to the Department of Labor, “Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18.” (Take note, Ivanka: We could use your leadership on this.)
Instead of accepting the notion that an acceptable work-life balance is out of reach, working women need to voice their demands to their bosses, and we need to do it together. We should have it all. We just need our bosses and leaders to accept the challenge. It will take a concerted effort, over a long period of time. But today seems like an especially good day to start.