(This is a follow-up based on questions from Nicole’s recent post on “How to Address Family Concerns” regarding negative reactions by women to “I don’t know how you do it.”)
It’s often the first thing out of people’s mouths when introducing me.
“Nicole has four children. I don’t know how she does it.”
It’s meant as a compliment, for sure. Yet the phrase, “I don’t know how you do it” has always rubbed me the wrong way. However, I had a hard time figuring out why. So I asked in my academic mamas online group for some feedback as to why.
The phrase was almost universally hated. Most acknowledged that they knew people were trying to be complimentary, but that they hated the phrase. Some said they felt there was a hidden judgment in it (“Should you really be working with all those kids at home?” being what people really meant.)
Others commented that no one wanted to know the answer of how they actually made their work and life balance “so seamlessly,” because it required sacrifices to their health and well-being. One commenter said that it made her more aware of all the ways she had to hide her struggles at home to appear more competent at work.
One main reason is that “I don’t know how you do it” fails to acknowledge any structural challenges inherent in being a working parent. Daycare is expensive, with little support from workplaces or the government. Not everyone has family support nearby, and with adults working longer, many grandparents may not even be able to provide childcare even if they are close.
Workplaces often fail to acknowledge working parents, which they could do by offering more parental leave, flexible scheduling, and onsite daycare.
In my own experience, the same person that says, “I don’t know how you do it,” is also the one who was shocked when I said I would not be answering emails for a month after giving birth to twins. Many of us put on a brave face in the workplace because this is exactly the place that we have less leeway to be fully ourselves.Workplaces are changing, with more parental leave, work-from-home arrangements, and flexible scheduling. However, with the pressures of online schooling and lack of childcare in the pandemic, we are seeing a massive exodus from the workplace of working mothers.
Maybe the truth is, without more support from society and workplaces, we just can’t do it anymore.
If you want more ways to support working mothers in your workplace, please let me know. I am happy to consult with your leadership team in creating structures to offer more support. And if you are looking for a way to express support for the working mom on your team, try this phrase, suggested by a commenter: “Having a full-time job and kids must be hectic – kudos to you for really crushing it! I’m really impressed by your drive.”