Motherhood doesn’t make you a less valuable employee. I wish I had understood that when I was younger

As International Women’s Day 2024 fades into the distance, I am reminded that workplaces will likely revert to the discomfort in talking about work, women, and money in the same sentence. So, I am doing my part to keep discussions around equality in the workplace alive.

When I got married, my views around my career were similar to many young Pakistani-Canadian girls: I could work, but my obligations to my family would come first. My parents were fiercely cultural and petrified of change in a country they both feared and were in awe of. The cultural conditioning (in the form of my mother) mandated the following for me: I would obtain a university degree or two (check), I would get married young (check at age 22), and I would work, but only recreationally until I had children (only partial points here).

I fell in love with professional advocacy, and in time, found a way to work both in and outside of the home (sometimes excelling in one job to the detriment of the other). In straddling identities as many second-generation Canadians do, I could not completely shake the hold of my mother’s voice: if I was going to leave my kids with a stranger (the words she used for our hired caregiver), it had to make financial sense for my family.

That meant our family lifestyle, like many Canadian homes, was funded by a dual income. It made decisions around family planning incredibly strategic with respect to timing. I asked myself constantly: have I built up enough credibility at work to be off on maternity leave?

Given that I was largely self-employed, I had no maternity leave benefits. I never took a 12-month leave for either child, and I worked with my partner at the time to ensure that we saved more to compensate for the months where I earned nothing at all. My maternity leaves were blessed of course, but they were stressful too — I always thought about money, and worried that while out of the office my superiors would forget about me. Sometimes I wonder if it is the real reason I have two kids, versus the four I dreamt of as a younger lady.

After my children were born, I would rarely take a sick day, reminding myself that I had to “save” my sick days for the kids. I recall returning to work when my son was seven-months, and constantly taking breaks throughout the day to pump for him. I would come home tired with breast milk in tow, ready for my second far more challenging job. I hid my exhaustion because I feared it would discredit me as a serious and committed lawyer at my firm.

It was during this time that I felt the most uncomfortable discussing my compensation. I convinced myself that I was wildly fortunate, and that accommodating my “mothering” (i.e. pumping throughout the day) was the most I could expect from my employer. In short, I was fortunate because they were allowing me to have a job while being a mom.

I remember my younger self bragging to other lawyers, “I can go home to my kids whenever I want.” It was not an issue with my workplace, it was with my younger mindset. I was impervious to the credit I was owed, and so I made no mention of it. I worked to perpetuate the notion that breaks in employment (i.e. a parental leave) made you less valuable in comparison to colleagues who were always present. Being a caregiver should not hold you back from raises, regular promotions and other growth opportunities. Although all of this sounds painfully obvious, the discrimination against caregivers is still rampant.

Employers that measure competency and performance with “facetime” in the office — you are diminishing the ability for caregivers to advance. You are sending the message that your obligation to legally accommodate caregivers is enough.

It is not.

Legislators need to build in protections for those taking parental leave so they have a chance to sit at the table, not just in the office.