I have heard the kind of talk that “you cannot be a single mom and a career woman”. To which I say, such are short of big dreams….! After all, a typical woman, married or not, typically raises child(ren) as a single mom while balancing more than one career. For clarity, I define a “single mom” herein as a mother predominantly in-charge of the major task of child rearing – carrying a fetus to full-term to delivery, caring for the newborn by nursing, clothing, feeding, bathing, aiding in growth milestones, and responding to all her child[ren]’s emotions and attachment, until the child[ren] is of age to be called an adult. I am still insist that unless one is devoid of own parents, siblings, daycare, nannies and babysitters, friends and school community, the notion of “single mom” is an oxymoron. But that is a battle for another time.
Call me a terrible mother! But I am a self-confessed Uganda-Chinese-French-America parent, and in that order! Uganda, because that is my country of birth, where I was raised. Chinese, because the parenting style of, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”, is a lot similar to Uganda. French has the “hand-off child. Adults and children belong to separate spaces at playtime, meal time and leisurely”, and I am a big fan of that! America, you probably figured that out already. Yes! my child is American and we live in America, my country for over fifteen years. So, we have to follow the rules about American parenting, and adopt the socio-cultural upbringing of children growing up in America or as Americans.
We have all been to a job interview. By the time you get there, you have done a little bit of research about the institution you are interviewing with. At the very basic, you know a lot about the job profile and requirements, whether it requires travel, and have an idea about its clientele. You are told it is taboo to ask about ‘compensation’, until the prospective employer brings up the topic. Even then, it is safer to bounce the question back to the employer, and let them tell to you how much worth they think of you. Another ‘silent taboo’ is talking about family life at a job interview. Perhaps, if you are a man, indicating you are a family man during a job interview could present you fairly, as a good family man, who wants a career to afford a good life for his family. More than likely, if you are a man, you are not expected to spend most of your life as CEO of Home Affairs. Even in ‘liberal’, women are the primarily child rearers and homemakers/ home managers. But how about if you are a woman and a mother?
I recently read an article, “US Foreign Policy Gender Gap” by Sarah Kendzior writing in Al Jazeera, that perception and money affect the number of women in senior level foreign affairs positions. According to Kendzior, perception is related to the assumption that women are particularly diplomatic, or empathetic, or kind, while money dictates that one should be able to afford their way around, especially when competing for an internship in the nation’s major international affairs hubs like New York or Washington. As well, one should afford to fly to interview with The Economist in London or take up an unpaid internship with the United Nations involving temporary relocation to expensive global cities.
What we learn is that while money affects male or female alike, very few ambitious and talented young professionals or students from poor backgrounds can afford these opportunities, even worse mothers with small children. Already, Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing for The Atlantic in summer 2012 told us “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, not because they are not super-ambitious but due to a lack of structural support to juggle family and work life.
But something these two writers did not mention was the “deafening silence” to the “Don’t Talk about family life when job interviewing Taboo”. Sure, we can liberally give the prospective employer our physical address, indicate that we are an email or phone call away to “further explore our job interests with the recruiter”, and are “available to start work immediately ”. But we are not exactly at liberty to talk about our family situation, although I have encountered men who ‘comfortably sneaked” in their family life during a job interview. My assumption is they do it because, it projects “a responsible family man”, who prioritizes his family obligations as central to his career success. But for a mother seeking paid employment, it is quite taboo talking about “family life” in a job interview.
Picture this, you are a single mother, with a toddler and would like to be in his life, while equally working a 9-5 job, the standard full-time work hours. I have no doubt that plenty of single parents have had to ask themselves these questions, and many have excelled at work. But I doubt any or many ever brought up their marital status and family life in their job interview, maybe until after the job was offered.
I have been living abroad for the last four years in three different countries, working excellently at my job, with a balanced family, work and “me” life, thanks to the flexibility of my scholarly research career. While living abroad, I scooped plenty of interviews, and job offers, even when I brought out my family status at the first interview. At one job interview, I stated upfront that I am was a single parent, and wished to balance “family, work and me life”, and asked for a flexible work schedule that would allow me drop off my son at school, and pick-up him up at the end of the school day, before the typical end of work day, and also take a personal day off each week. I got the job on my terms, with my son at the center, and with me as a single mother.
Now that I am back in the United States with a richer career experience, I am having trouble articulating “my three-tier life” to any prospective employer. In typical consultancy or NGO employment, plenty of work is done offsite of the employing office – we carry office work on our mobile phones, at home, on the plane and in coffee shops. And while we sign up for a 9-5, we usually put in more hours than we are paid. For one of my employers abroad, I had agreed to a 10:00a to 3:00p from Monday to Thursday work schedule. Yet, I arrived two hours earlier every work day, and also worked on some Fridays, my weekly day off. Whenever I went out to conduct field research and training of village communities away from my office and home base, I spent three days away from my son, without compensation for the nights-out for work.
So, why is it a taboo to ask a prospective employer to factor in the life of a single parent, trying to balance work-family-and-me life? I am aware that having an international career and a degree from a US university might have reflected favorably to my employers abroad, most of whom were in the international affairs realm. But I would like to be accorded similar consideration from employers in international affairs back here in the United States. Most probably though, employers in the US have in the back of their mind concern for, “who will take care of her child while she is at work”, especially when she has to travel to sites away from home? Similar concerns exist whether one is applying for international affairs positions, as a waitress at the local Red Lobster Restaurant, or as a Sales Associate at Walmart.
But all is not lost for single “family-centralist” mothers. As Sarah Kendzior says, for women, [and for single mothers [or single fathers] one has to recreate their professional ambitions, by perhaps becoming a writer or blogger. I know plenty of [single] mothers who have quit lavishly paying and professionally rewarding careers to go on their own and have afforded the ability to put their children’s central. Handy and artistic work is another option that single mothers could pursue. If you are into academia, there are possibilities of teaching, student counseling, or organizing summer camps and student internships abroad, with a flexible schedule. However, getting your footstep in the door is the first mighty step to take. Still, that might not come easily, by telling the prospective employer that – “I am a single mother and I have a five-year old”. That is still a Taboo to Job Interviewing!