Allowing People with Children in Workspaces Their Reality

Accidentally neoliberal and conservative?

von Sohra Behmanesh, April 28, 2022
Allowing People with Children in Workspaces Their Reality

Five years ago, the video of the "BBC Dad" went viral; a professor who gave an interview to the BBC from his home office, crashed by his two adorable children.

And the most-liked comment under the YouTube video will cause a lot of inward head nodding among many parents:

Screenshot of a comment by “spoyledbratt” dated one year ago. The comment says: “2017: We laugh at him. 2020: We relate to him.”

Something has fundamentally changed since 2017 - the pandemic has forced many people into home office, for some a blessing, for some not so much. But something this video makes clear hasn't changed, people who are in wage jobs have to pretend they don't have children in the context of wage jobs. Read that again. People who do wage labor have to pretend they don't have children in the context of wage labor.

Robert Kelly, the dad from the BBC video, was visibly embarrassed when first his child danced up and shortly thereafter his baby rolled in, but desperately tried to pretend that nothing was happening. He did not briefly address his child to tell him that he could not be disturbed just then, but his gaze remained stoically on the camera even as he awkwardly groped backwards with one arm in an attempt to push his child away unnoticed. And even his wife Jung-a Kim (remember how the racism in us presumed her to be a nanny in the beginning when the video went viral?) who slithered in immediately afterwards in a panic to drag the children out, walked bent over flat, dragging the children across the floor, probably hoping to get the disturbance out of the picture as inconspiciously as possible. Of course, nothing about this scene was inconspicuous. But they were trying.

Robert Kelly later told us that he had been afraid that he would never be asked to be interviewed by the BBC again because of this incident. And that tells us a lot about what we mean by professionalism and respectability: disturbances are unwelcome. Even those from your own children.

The viral video earned many funny reactions, one of which came from comedians in New Zealand, and was meant to satirically show how the interview would have gone if it had been a mother interrupted by her children on a live feed:

I thought it was funny, but of course untrue. Even though care work is still performed almost exclusively by mothers, who thus have to permanently juggle an incredible number of balls at once along with wage labor, the following is true: mothers must organize their children away from the realm of wage labor if they want to be perceived as professional. Mothers cannot be noted as mothers. And because the reality is that women (in heterosexual relationships) still do the vast majority of care work, they can of course there is no way not to be noted as a mother when you have children. And this should be a responsibility for us as a society, starting with fathers, continuing with employers and colleagues, and ending with customers. If we as a society want to deal fairly with the fact that for many people children are part of the reality of their lives, then we need to think about and take into account the challenges of balancing parenthood and work.

The reality, however, is different. Mothers are disadvantaged when they take longer parental leave and thus take a longer career break. And they’re disadvantaged even more if they take shorter parental leave! Then they are perceived by personnel managers as unsympathetic, too ambitious, not warm-hearted enough, and less often invited to job interviews. And the uproar caused by the then French Minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, because she returned to work in 2009 five days after giving birth to her child was so huge that I still remember it well. (We as a society, however, don't think it's so bad when models like Heidi Klum walk the runway again a few weeks after giving birth, and that's part of the problem, too: because we approve of the fact that they show us that you can't tell their body just gave birth). So if mothers take longer parental leave, it's wrong, if they take shorter parental leave, it's also wrong. And if they take their baby to work? Also wrong, of course, as Green Party MP Madeleine Henfling learned in 2018: she had brought her six-week-old sleeping baby in a baby carrier to a plenary session - and was kicked out by the president of the state parliament.

This anti-parenting (and in reality anti-mother) attitude runs through the entire working world; even employers who claim to have flat hierarchies or social content hardly question their neoliberal corporate structure in this respect in combination with barely concealed traditional role models. Yet it is clear that the work model of the 40-hour week (plus overtime) is designed so that the person who works for pay has someone at home to take care of everything else: household, child care, bureaucracy, organization. This does not correspond to today's reality, and yet the idea that a working person should be completely available to the company still holds true.

Some time ago, during a job interview for a leading position at one of the best-known German animal rights organizations, a friend of mine was certified by the two male bosses as being qualified for the position - however [stern look] there was "a problem". What was meant was: her motherhood.

Initiatives like #ProParents campaign for equal legal treatment of parents, and in September their founders are publishing their book "Congratulations on the baby, you're fired! Discrimination against parents in the workplace: case histories of those affected and proposed solutions" (in German). But there are already some legal protections, such as the right to work part-time or the right to an equivalent job after returning from parental leave, but they don't work in practice, as these testimonials show. And that's why I think it's almost more important that we as a society, and specifically as supervisors, HR managers and colleagues, take a self-critical look at our attitude to parenthood - especially motherhood. And thus also how we concretely and actively contribute to (in)justice in the workplace.

If it is actually an important value for companies not to dehumanize their employees as "human capital," this is an indispensable part of it: Making ourselves aware of how much the common attitude toward parenthood - starting with pregnancy - is characterized by problematizing it and perceiving it as an undesirable disruption to the business, rather than as a normal variable to be planned for. Anything else is an automatic and explicit desolidarization with parents, and due to factually unequally distributed responsibility for parental care work, automatically misogynistic.

Here are some examples of how that could look:

  • Job ads that demand "flexibility" without actual necessity.
  • Meetings (even informal ones!) and training sessions that fall outside the working hours of part-time workers.
  • Emails after hours or on weekends.
  • Not trusting colleagues who have children to be able to work full time and not taking them into account when making plans, promotions and applications.
  • Assuming that colleagues who have children have character deficits if they want to work full-time or take a short parental leave.
  • Denying colleagues who have children and work part-time reliability, professional ambitions, promotion prospects and leadership positions.
  • Envying parents' supposed advantages and believing themselves to be at a disadvantage as childless parents (e.g., when it comes to vacation planning or maternity protection measures).
  • Lack of understanding or annoyance when parents are absent because of their children or are tied to the daycare center's drop-off and pick-up times.
  • The attitude, "Well, parents chose it that way..."
  • The acceptance and normalization of parental exhaustion.

Little takes place between the glorification of mothers ("Mothers are heroines! You can do it!!") and their devaluation ("You can't rely on them anymore."). What both poles have in common is that they leave mothers alone and deny them participation, equal opportunities and. And what is needed here is nothing less than a paradigm shift in which the corporate structure seeks to cultivate the value of distributive justice - and concretely implements corporate family friendliness. And that takes more than lip service. How about, for example, an unbureaucratic extra week of vacation for all parents this year, as recognition and compensation for the gigantic challenge and overload that Corona means for them?

Having children is not a personal hobby that parents can afford extravagantly, and should therefore see to it that they manage it alone and inconspicuously - and are themselves to blame if they don't manage it. Parenthood is a highly human version of being human.

By the way, the parody video on BBC Dad inspired me deeply. Some time ago I gave an online seminar on racism-critical pedagogy from my home office. It was all organized, my husband took over the kids and was away most of the time so I could have our rather small apartment to myself in peace. This is not unusual for us, my husband takes on well over 50% of the care and housework for large parts of our daily lives. What was unusual, though, was that when they returned, my younger child didn't give me a quick peck, only to have our younger child break down crying, insisting on his mommy - and feeling very, very warm. Something like that can't be planned for, during the day it still seemed perfectly healthy.

My husband sweated blood and water, because it was his job to keep the time free for my seminar. And without the BBC-Dad and my dealing with exactly this topic, I would also have been in the highest and most embarrassing distress. But so I was relaxed and clear, I allowed myself my reality. I apologized to the participants, clarified the options with my family, and for the rest of the seminar my child lay quietly with me, with his head on my lap, and I relaxed and led my seminar to its conclusion. I know that not everyone found this professional and serious but I think that - in all modesty - I solved the situation quite confidently. I also think that we need a new understanding of sovereignty and professionalism. But more about that another time.



In this column, presented in collaboration with our friends from Wildling Shoes, we want to give more space and visibility to the issues of anti-discrimination, belonging, and intersectionality in the workplace. Through articles, interviews, and diverse perspectives, we aim to both challenge and inspire those working in the impact sector - while encouraging them to create authentically lived workspaces that foster more belonging and less discrimination. By gaining new perspectives and engaging in a shared dialogue, we can take a collective step toward radical systems change in the impact sector - from "power over" and "power for" to "power with." 

Our columnist for 2022 is Sohra Behmanesh. She lives with her family in Berlin, works as a freelance anti-racism trainer, and finds caring and empathy just as superb as intersectionality. 

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Photo: Kris Wolf