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The Moms Left Out of Working Mom Conversations

Somewhere between answering an email from a client offering me another project, putting my toddler to bed and pouring myself some medicine to take the edge off my cold, I thought: Maybe I need to say "No" more often.

It's the kind of thing I'd be tempted to write about: Moms Need to Say No More Often.

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But I won't write that article. While we can all say "no" to minor commitments here and there, the truth is, most working mothers cannot easily say no to work. Either they can't afford to say no or the nature of their work precludes it.

You might have read the buzzed-about mea culpa in Fortune where Katharine Zaleski, an executive, reveals her former bias against working moms. She contributed to discrimination against moms right up until she became a mom herself. Zaleski has been praised for shining a light on how corporate culture treats moms. But her perspective is problematic.

Zaleski correctly points out that the quality of our work output is more valuable than falling in line with office culture (e.g., after-hours drinks with colleagues). She also stresses how moms can do great work right from home. But this perspective only benefits moms who work in professions where one's presence is not integral to one's work.

What about moms who work as teachers, receptionists, nurses or service sector employees? These moms can't work from home, and they can't draw a line with their employer without it costing them.

What Zaleski does show us: Moms confront prejudice in the workplace from men and women alike. However, she fails to mention that there is little recourse for working moms who face discrimination at work because legal protections require clear proof of discrimination. Consider some of Zaleski's own behavior, such as agreeing to fire a woman before said woman became pregnant. How would that employee ever prove that this private conversation and decision happened?

The broader problem with positions like Zaleski's—or Facebook's top mom and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg's—is that they represent a very select group of working mothers. The moms I'm thinking about aren't struggling with missing after-hours drinks with the partners. They are already "leaning in" by continuing to work.

But perhaps leaning in isn't enough. A great many working moms care more about the minimum wage or universal paid maternity leave comparable with other leading nations.

These moms work hard, come home and parent. It's a difficult balance, and there's no such thing as a part-time mom. Every mom is a mom 24 hours a day.

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The strongest voices for working mothers' advocacy cannot only be the voices of women who enjoy posh corporate positions and major bargaining power. Moving women and mothers forward requires us to advance policies that will benefit moms across the social spectrum.

Let's not forget about the average working mom, because she is important, too. And she needs a place in these national conversations.

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Image via Twenty20/JMthephotoGirl

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