Sept. 9, 2012 -- If you're a working mother, here's what some of your young, childless colleagues may be reluctant to tell you to your face: They admire you, but they also hope to avoid walking in your shoes.
It's a sentiment I heard from young women like Taylor Lorenz, 26, who works at a New York advertising agency.
"She sends emails all the time, so I never feel like she's unavailable," Lorenz told me as she described her generally positive relationship with her very busy, working-mom boss. "But if I were her with a 2-year-old and husband, I wouldn't want to be sending emails at 10:30 at night."
It's no secret, as the New York Times recently pointed out, that there's a simmering tension between employees who don't have children and their working-parent colleagues. In short, the former feel as if they end up picking up more slack at work when the latter wave the "Accommodate me, I have a kid" flag.
But as a working mom myself, what I wanted to know was how young, working women in particular felt about working mothers. These, after all, are women who, statistically speaking, are likely to have kids someday -- in the U.S., by age 40, more than four out of five U.S. women have had children, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. When young working women look at moms like me, I wondered, do they see their future selves or do they see us as cautionary tales? Do they admire and empathize with us, or do they resent us when our child-related obligations leave them holding the bag?
It was with these questions in mind that I reached out and interviewed more than a dozen childless, young working women, ages 22 to 36, in various industries. Not surprisingly, their responses were mixed. Yes, resentment was evident among several women whom I spoke to -- but, at the same time, many of the women did express empathy for their colleagues. There were some who said that the working women around them were their role models, and others who were reluctant to follow the same, stress-filled road. Since they were sensitive about discussing co-workers, some asked that their last names be withheld or that their names be replaced with aliases.
'An Incredible Thing'
Let's start with the good news.
Several of the women I spoke to exhorted the benefits of working with moms. One retail sales associate in New Jersey told me she liked how her boss seemed to use her "maternal instinct" to defend her employees in the face of unruly customers. A Boston consulting firm research assistant said that casual conversations with her colleagues have given her a good sense of the financial realities of child care and will help her plan her own future -- plus, she loved seeing cute pictures of their children.
But mainly, they praised working moms for skillfully and tenaciously negotiating the work and family juggle.
"I know people my age who focus more on their pets than ... on the work at hand," said Valerie, 22, an assistant at a medical supply company in suburban Philadelphia. "The fact that my manager has a child and can focus on her work -- I think that's an incredible, incredible thing."
Elizabeth Stern, also 22, an executive assistant at a Manhattan media company, manages her boss's calendar and, as a result, is rather well-versed on the specifics of her supervisor's juggle.
"She has three kids. They've got sports, school and all these things that she has to manage before and after she comes in and leaves the office," Stern said. "I don't even know how she has the energy for that and commuting and working all day. I can't even imagine."
Both those at the lower and higher ends of company food chains told me they try to be accommodating when they can.
Liz, 31, a headhunter at a Cleveland recruiting firm, said she knows an essential part of the work-family balance for an assistant at her firm is leaving at a set time every evening and then working from home at night and on the weekends. Nonetheless, Liz said, she tries to make it easier on the assistant by assigning her work earlier rather than later.
"I know I can count on her to do things late at night, but sometimes I'm just like, 'I can just spend an extra 20 minutes now while I'm in the office so she won't have to log in tonight,'" she said. "I don't have to, but I choose to do it because it's the right thing to do."
Picking Up the Slack
Now the bad news: Even women like Liz -- the kind who may bend over backward to help out a working mom colleague in a pinch -- aren't immune to feeling resentment, especially when it seems as if there are working moms who take advantage of the flexibility afforded to them.
At a previous job at a different company, Liz remembered being consistently frustrated by how difficult it was to reach a colleague who usually worked from home.
"You always had to groan when you had to use her because the chance you were actually going to get her on the telephone or via email during the day was really slim to none," Liz said. "She would always make up excuses like, 'Oh, I had to run to the store because my baby was out of diapers, or I had to run because I got a call from the school and I had to go pick up my daughter."
Other complaints I heard were about offenses less egregious but perhaps more common: long lunches at home with the kids, spending too much time on personal phone calls during working hours and calling in sick for multiple days to care for an ill child. In a number of cases, women told me that such perceived transgressions resulted in more work getting dumped on those without children.
"There's a kind of a get-out-of jail-free card if you have kids," said Kelly Burns Gallagher, 31, a lawyer in Connecticut and dedicated triathlete. "Crap comes up, and we're stuck here forever but if someone said, 'I have to pick up my kids from day care, the kids have a game tonight, there's a school activity, they get to leave. But if I say I have to get a run in, that's not an acceptable response."
A 34-year-old doctor at a Florida hospital told me that what really bothered her had nothing to do with actual work, but rather with peer-to-peer relationships. She said she felt that sometimes the working moms she knew suggested that her experiences were trivial compared to their own.
The woman, who asked to be referred to only as M., recalled showing pictures of her pets to a fellow physician and the shocking conversation that ensued.
"She took one look, and said 'Oh, I used to love my cat and think everything he did was amazing, until I had a baby and now I could care less about the cat." She said she was trying to get rid of it. ... That horrified me," M. said.
What Not to Do
Her experiences with less tactful working moms notwithstanding, M. said that she has met "amazing women" in medicine who have shown her that it's possible to have a medical career and a family. She was one of several women I spoke to who said she hoped to emulate some of her working-mom peers.
But others say their experiences with working moms have taught them what not to do.
Gallagher, the Connecticut lawyer, is also considering having children someday, but she wants to avoid falling into a model that she said doesn't work: raising kids when both parents work full-time at demanding jobs.
"I think the biggest lesson is to have a spouse who is really flexible. You need one parent who has a certain amount of flexibility, and if you're both tied up with crazy jobs, it does become really difficult."
Liz, the Cleveland headhunter, has another solution: She plans to devote her childless years to making partner at her firm, a move, she said, that will bring with it a heftier paycheck and a more flexible schedule.
"The idea is to bust my butt for my next couple of years," she said, "and that will enable me from a financial standpoint and work-life balance standpoint to have kids and not have to go through what some of these working moms go through, because it looks really hard."
Lorenz, the young ad agency employee, isn't quite sure how she'll handle the work-life balance, but she concedes it might someday mean leaving her industry of choice.
"I don't know I would want to stay in advertising and be a working mom. The hours are really long, and when you want to get home to your family, I can imagine it's tough," she said. "I can see why people take time off work and don't do the exact job they might want to do because they have these kids."
Carol Evans, the president of Working Mother Media, said there are steps employees and companies can take to help both working parents and nonparents alike while easing tension between the two groups.
At a company level, organizations should embrace flexible schedules for all employees, she said. For instance, those seeking to rearrange their schedules to train for a marathon, take a college class or care for sick parents should be able to do so.
"If it is just for moms, the company is doing it wrong," Evans said. When "the stigma is lifted from everybody for flexible work, everybody benefits."
Evans said that more companies are moving toward a more flexible workplace culture, not because of working moms but because of the influx of millennial generation workers.
"The youngest generation -- they really want flexibility. They don't want to be tied down," she said. "They're used to working from anywhere with all the tech tools they need. They know they don't have to do work the same way it's always been done."
Forming employee resource groups, or ERGs, including those targeting women, could also go a long way toward improving relations between parents and childless co-workers.
"When women's ERGs are present, it really helps to lower the level of resentment, because of a lot senior women are helping younger women," Evans said. "How can a young woman resent a woman who has kids but who is also trying to help further women in our company. It's a systematic way to help reduce the level of sniping. ... When advancement of women is part of our conversation and our mind-set, it filters down to the young childless women, who realize, 'Oh yeah, this will be for me some day.'"
On their own, working moms can take initiative to mentor younger employees.
"Mentoring younger people in their careers goes a long way toward giving back and making them aligned with your own interests and needs," Evans said.
And it's important to understand their interests and needs too -- in other words, don't be like Florida doctor M.'s co-worker and callously dismiss her love of her pets.
"Have empathy, ask them what their flex needs are ... that makes her feel like you're on an equal level," Evans said.
Last but not least, express gratitude to those who do help you out of a tight spot.
Valerie, the Pennsylvania medical supply assistant, said she's picked up extra work when her colleague has had to take her daughter for doctor's appointments -- and she was fine with that because of how her colleague treats her.
"She always thanks me, and she always apologizes," Valerie said. "She's a really sweet woman, so I don't mind so much."
Valerie said that sometimes the situation is reversed, and that working moms in her office cover for her when she has to miss work.
"I think I got really lucky with the group of women that I work with," she said. 'We all try to help each other out."