Why we are scared of mothers (in our business lives)

Every human being is born from a mother[1]. By consequence, one could assume that relating to mothers is the most natural thing on earth. The dire fact it: It isn’t. Of course, there’s Freud and the Oedipus complex, there are the Beatles and Mother Nature’s Son[2], and there are mothers’ days, mothers’ little helpers, and mothers’ curses. A universe of stories and reasons why relationships with mothers can be – and often are – difficult. This is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about why so many of us are scared of working with mothers in a professional (business) environment[3].

I admit that I blissfully ignored this issue before I was a mother myself. When I was a professional woman with no kids, I misjudged and mistreated my colleagues who were mothers[4]. Then, in my early days as a professional woman with kids, someone left me a voice message around 3pm on a working day saying: “Oh, I forgot I might not be able to reach you – you’re probably on the playground with your son”[5]. And someone said to me: “We did not ask you whether you wanted to lead that project in Spain because, you know, it is so much travel”[6]. And someone asked me: “Is it difficult to be a mother?”[7].

For a while, I was offended and angry[8]: Why the heck do people assume that once you’re a mother, everything you do is only related to your being a mother? Do people ever assume the same about people who become fathers, win a noble prize, or buy a piano?! To let off steam, I would swap stories with fellow professional working mothers, and to calm myself down, I would talk to people who said how much they liked working with mothers, “because, you know, they just get so much more done” (which, of course, is just a slightly more digestible twist on the same problem).

More recently, however, reflecting on my indignation, I concluded that there is something more: We – and here I’m totally including myself – hesitate to fully relate with mothers in our professional lives because they confront us with the most basic – and therefore most elusive – parts of our being. For good reasons, professional life – despite recent attempts to praise the power of vulnerability – is mostly not about facing our tender spots[9]. Mothers, on the other hand, are constant reminders of things we’d rather not deal with in our day-to-day lives – so our knee-jerk reaction is to run for cover when we see them coming.

Let me illustrate my point:

Mothers remind us of our most basic bodily functions. Not only because giving birth is probably the primeval physical experience that human beings can consciously remember in this life[10], but also on a more practical level: It is mothers who extract that spare diaper or dirty wet wipe from their handbags when they rummage for their phones, mothers who matter-of-factly talk about how they spent the night cleaning up vomit and runny excrements, and mothers who sport that disturbing spot of yellow-white something on their Jil Sander jacket that distracts your attention throughout the meeting. This is not what we want to deal with when we’re preparing an investors’ conference.

Mothers make us painfully aware of our impulsive behaviours. There’s nothing like the skeptical look of a mother to unsettle you when you’re about to have a fully justified fit of rage against that bastard of a consultant who came up with an analysis that trashes your most cherished strategic ideas for the next 18 months[11]. Don’t look at her while you’re indulging in your outrage – as soon as you catch her eye, she’s going to make you feel like that kid who’s throwing a shovel because someone else smashed their sandcastle. Only: You are that kid, and that’s the fact that, right now, you don’t want to be reminded of.

Mothers make us feel how much we love being loved. Whether they talk about it or not: With mothers, we always know that there is someone outside the office building who effortlessly claims their devotion, attention, and tenderness. That person is not us. So regardless of the current status our own love life and general happiness, the simple presence of a mother is a reminder that there’s a love of which we are not the object right now[12]. This hurts. Who wants to be pointed to an unmet emotional need in the midst of a heated controversy about the next multi-billion investment?

Mothers undermine our self-image. When talking in the presence of mothers, we always suspect that whatever we tell them about ourselves is going to sound like: “I want to be a firefighter”[13]. They’ll gracefully listen, nod, smile, encourage us – and at the same time, we’ll sense that they know that we don’t (yet) know that our projected self-image is just that – a projected image of a dream-entangled self. How’s that for making you feel confident in a critical negotiation with your biggest corporate customer?!

Mothers destroy our fantasies of control. Not, as you might think, because mothers have to dash out of the office to pick up a kid from daycare when the au-pair forgot the car keys at her new boyfriend’s home (without you even noticing, mothers will have called the next-door neighbour to unlock the bicycle shed so the au-pair can borrow a bike and pick up the kid). But: Mothers will keep asking questions that poke holes into your plans until they’re convinced that effective and efficient implementation is possible. They’ll not stop. This will freak you out when you think you know what needs to happen, because you’ll realise that you don’t[14].

With all this, a cowardly conclusion could be that there’s a case for not working with mothers because it is just too uncomfortable, painful, and challenging. This is wrong. It is advisable to work with mothers for exactly these reasons. Nowhere can we learn so much about our own fears, inhibitions, and hangups than when we carefully examine what interaction with mothers in a professional environment brings up for us. However: It takes a courageous heart and an inquisitive mind to do so – may we all aspire to have these at all times!


[1] Here, I’m referring to the biological observation that, so far, even though human beings have been known to be conceived ‘in vitro’ (or in other non-living places), there seems to be no instance of a human embryo actually growing outside a mother’s womb. I’m not referring to the social construct of a “mother” which today can take so many forms (including fathers) that it would merit a post on its own.BACK TO TEXT

[2] Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39eJpAUMa78 [retrieved Mar 20, 2015] BACK TO TEXT

[3] This question is related to, but not identical with the question why it’s so hard for men to adopt the behaviours that make women successful in the boardroom – see my earlier post hereBACK TO TEXT

[4] Katharine Zaleski wrote a beautiful self-reflection on this issue – see her article here: http://fortune.com/2015/03/03/female-company-president-im-sorry-to-all-the-mothers-i-used-to-work-with/ [retrieved Mar 20, 2015].  BACK TO TEXT

[5] At that point in time, I was working full-time, and I happened to be in a client meeting.  BACK TO TEXT

[6] At that point in time, I was working full-time, flying to various places in Europe on 3-4 days per week to serve clients.  BACK TO TEXT

[7] The question inspired me to start my second attempt at blogging here: https://www.tumblr.com/search/isitdifficulttobeamother [retrieved Mar 20, 2015]; I’ll talk about the first attempt some other time. BACK TO TEXT

[8] For the record: I still find myself getting angry today when I talk to people about why and how I started my own business, and their first reaction is: “Oh, and now you also must have a lot more time for your son!”. BACK TO TEXT

[9] Even organisational development ideas that emphasise personal development such as the “Deliberately Developmental Organisation” (see https://hbr.org/2014/04/making-business-personal) are about creating a holding environment for those “soft spots” we deliberately want to work with in the context of our professional lives – they’re never about mercilessly exposing things we’re not (yet) ready to face. BACK TO TEXT

[10] For most of us, the other two comparable experiences – our own birth and death – are mostly inaccessible to conscious memory. Of course, there’s always art to try to get around this problem, for example here [retrieved Mar 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] This is a fictional example. Most consultants don’t do this kind of thing. And even if they do, most civilised managers respond in far more subtle ways than throwing a tantrum. BACK TO TEXT

[12]  For an example of a differentiated perspective listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOLH63c7SG0 [retrieved Mar 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[13]  A deep bow to the makers of “Fireman Sam” for creating a whole world that revolves around this particular self-image. BACK TO TEXT

[14]  For some reason, the Beatles seem to have a lot to say around the questions at hand – for example, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtcN7HksEDE [retrieved Mar, 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

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