Jane Verne's child was 3 years old before the former investment banker hung a picture of her in her office. By then, the New York — based Verne (not her real name) was in her mid-30s and one of only a few women at the company who had made managing director. Verne figured she'd proven herself enough professionally to be able to acknowledge her motherhood. But almost instantly, she says, higher-ups openly assumed she wouldn't want to travel anymore, what with the baby at home. Soon she was iced out of office happy hours. Eventually, the cold shoulder became so pronounced that Verne, faced with pediatrician appointments and school interviews, began fabricating client meetings to explain to her own staff why she sometimes left work early. "When you have kids, people just assume that you're not as committed to your work and you won't do what it takes," Verne says.
While Verne's circumstances may be extreme, her conundrum is all too familiar to the nation's 31 million working moms, nearly half of whom hold down full-time jobs: How much motherhood is OK to demonstrate at work? The line can be disarmingly thin. Finger paints on the bulletin board? Her heart's not in it. Meeting interrupted by a call from the school? Can't that wait — this is important. Slip out the door at 5:30 to relieve the nanny? Must be nice to leave work early every day. "Even though it's kind of an old-fashioned concept, there is still a stigma attached to being a working mom," says Carol Evans, president of Working Mother magazine.
While office tensions between mommies and everyone else are hardly new, what has changed are the demographics on either side: At the same time more American women are opting not to have children at all, more are also choosing to have kids later in their career. And even as companies practically fall over themselves to accommodate moms — offering up lactation rooms, flextime, backup day care — scrutiny of working mothers remains intense, as evidenced by a 2010 survey of 4,600 working men and women conducted by IBM, Ernst & Young, and Procter & Gamble. The findings weren't pretty: Childless employees griped that working moms were less likely to take on additional work or do whatever it took to get the job done. The takeaway: Your company may be cutting you some slack, but good luck getting any from the folks you work with.
"I have a department meeting every Monday at 9 a.m.," says Lisa Foreman (not her real name), a publicist for a cable talk show and the mother of three kids. "Even though Monday mornings are crazy — getting the kids on the bus after the weekend — I always make sure I get to work on time, and looking my best." Unlike the one colleague, Foreman says, who comes in late, habitually complaining about how her daughter "had a rough night." "We've all been there, but I know what everyone else is thinking because I'm thinking the same thing: Get it together, lady." Foreman says she's so conscious of how her mommy-ness translates at work that she even parks her minivan — the most glaring of mommy emblems — in one of the farthest spots from her building.
"The worst part is that the dads in the office get treated so differently. They're the heroes," gripes one publishing exec, a mother of two boys, who recalls a male colleague earning accolades for leaving midday to attend a field trip. "But when I had to take a couple hours off for my son's doctor's appointment, all I got was, 'You should schedule those things before work,' even though I'm here 9 to 7 every day."
Regina Feiler, 39, a director of a corporate photo gallery and a mother of three, admits that she's gotten lucky in her career. By any measure, hers is a family-friendly office, where Monday morning how-was-your-weekend chitchat invariably revolves around kids. It gets tricky, though, when her colleagues insinuate that their brand of balancing work and family is the better way. "I work with excellent parents who don't necessarily go to every one of their kids' softball games. And I can tell they think, I don't go to everything — why do you have to?" Feiler says. "But that's the kind of parent I am."
The good news: Experts say that the pressure to hide your mommy self should all but disappear once Millennials assume management positions. "They get that successful careers aren't built on face time, that you can be wired and work from anywhere, 24/7," says Evans. "I expect that the generational shift will bring enormous changes to how, where, and when we work. And that's only good news for working moms."