Rebranding Working Motherhood at the Dinner Table
When you’re a working Mom, there are very few times that you get to let your guard down without feeling like you’re letting someone else down. The point was brought home this weekend as my daughter read through our hastily printed out 30-minute Haggadah (that’s right I was so busy, and such a terrible Jewish Mom we almost skipped Passover.) With the 30 minute Haggadah you really only hit the Seder highlights. So when my daughter read the last of the four questions, I heard her loud and clear:
On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?
No wonder my working Mom always told me that Passover was her favorite holiday. We get to recline on this one holiday, an opportunity working moms don’t get that often. Working Moms are asked to lean in, but we’re never asked to recline.
So what happens when women recline? Turns out it’s pretty powerful. A little more than a year ago, my friend Sarah Lacy started hosting informal monthly dinners at her home. These dinners were places where working moms shared stories, found support, and made friends. They’d start at seven and often go well past midnight. We didn’t worry about having all of the answers or saying the right thing.
Because of the success of her dinners, Sarah was inspired to extend the table, and so today she launches Chairman Mom, a platform for working parents to gather online and just talk. Through this new venture, Sarah also wants to rebrand working motherhood, and build an online space free of judgment where working Moms could find respite (and recline). We could alter the current vision of working Moms into a more realistic view of the rich experience raising children and managing a career can be.
I’m excited to see what happens when Chairman Mom gives every woman a chance to take a seat and receive some support. And while there are no shortage of women’s conferences, I think the Internet version of a small communal meal might make a world of difference.
As the daughter of a working Mom, I’d grown up with women’s dinners and working Mom communities as a significant part of my life.
Long before there was any such thing as the Internet, my working mother was the ultimate hostess of such gatherings — not a great cook, but an amazing convener of conversation. Back when I was a teenager in Boston, my Mom would get a group of women from different backgrounds to talk life, career, and politics, and she’d usually have a prompt to get the lady’s juices flowing. After Sarah’s dinner I called my Mom and said, “I feel like I attended one of your dinners!”
Women’s dinners have been the ultimate underground networks and support groups for many generations of women. I wanted to hear stories from the first generation of working mothers about the appeal of these dinners, so I reached out to some of the women who attended my Mom’s dinners. I wanted to know if those dinners were helpful to them and I wanted to confirm that Chairman Mom could be an online space that could offer the same kind of support.
One of the women I remember often attending these gatherings in my Brookline home was Priscilla Douglas. She’s an Executive Coach who served as Secretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations in Massachusetts. “Before you can talk about common challenges, when you get together with a group of women you see that we are all in it together. Everyone is busy, and when you are in a high level position, people are lonely, you can’t have candid conversations. It’s true then and now. There are certain things you can’t talk about at work no matter how close you are to your colleagues. You can’t let your hair down.”
Women in positions of leadership often can’t discuss their challenges openly, so we’re constantly holding back. At women’s dinners, you don’t have to check your identity at the door. For Priscilla and many other women, these dinners made them feel less alone.
Thaleia Schlesinger, the President of Schlesinger & Associates, a friend and colleague of my Mom, has played a role in too many elections to count. She told me, “Whether women had challenges professionally or personally we’d offer suggestions. If I needed an introduction, people would offer recommendations and let us use their name when we called. It was a supportive community professionally and personally.”
When discussing my mother’s dinners, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, at the time a professor of business at Harvard Business School, who is now director and chair of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, said, “When living in a mostly male and pretty impersonal world at work, as it was for the many baby boomers who broke into male-dominated fields, it was relaxing, soothing, comfortable, and energizing to dine with a group of supportive women and swap experiences.”
What made these dinners so powerful was the women behind them, all of whom were ready to roll up their sleeves and help each other. While all women can’t sit at the same table over dinner, Sarah’s idea is to extend that table to all working mothers. What if we all felt supported as working mothers and like we could finally let our hair down?
Finally, a place for women to recline.