It was the first week at my big new job and I was determined to make a good impression. I'd just moved to Australia to open up my company's first overseas office and I'd brought my young family with me.
As an intense discussion about pricing strategy ran longer than expected, one of my colleagues turned to me and asked, "So, who's picking up your kids from school today?"
When I told him I wouldn't be picking up the kids because, clearly, I am here, he followed up with the expected, "Oh, you work full time?"
Bang... I instantly went from seasoned professional to slacker mum.
It's taken me years to come to terms with the heavy dose of guilt that naturally accompanies life as a working mum. Fortunately, my kids are now 12 and they have made it this far relatively unscathed, despite my career. After growing a thicker skin, I can honestly say that I'm totally comfortable with my role as a working mum, but it didn't come easy.
Offhand comments and questions are constantly thrown my way that would never be directed at a working father. Sometimes they come from work colleagues but it's just as likely to be a well-intentioned stay-at-home mum or even a family member. While they can come from anywhere, the result is always the same... They make me upset, frustrated and angry.
So, for the benefit of all of us working mums -- there are a lot of us, by the way -- here are the questions to avoid like the plague.
1. Do you need to work?
There's no right answer to this question. It's a zinger because there's an implied assumption that I shouldn't be working unless I 'need to' in order to support my family. Yet, if I do 'need to' work, well, what's wrong with my lazy husband who should be working to support the family so I can stay at home? Yup, no right answer.
2. Don't your kids miss you? Or... Don't you miss your kids?
This is just pure judgment wrapped up in a neat punchy little package. It's another minefield with no right answer. If I don't miss my kids, I'm a heartless wench, and if I do, then why am I working? Just don't ask it.
By the way, the answer is "Yes, sometimes. And then I remember that I spend lots of quality time with them in the mornings, evenings and on weekends".
3. How do you do it? I could never let strangers raise my children.
Strangers? Are you kidding me? The extraordinary women (and yes, they are primarily women) who help me raise my kids are anything but strangers. They are my partners and my friends. These kind, patient, caring superheroes work incredibly hard so that the children in their care learn, grow and develop into respectful and responsible human beings.
When I was younger, I worked in child care for more than a year. Few people will ever understand how deeply these valiant underpaid professionals care about the children in their charge. Trust me, they're not doing it just for the money. Did you know that certified childcare workers in Australia make approximately half the national average wage?
And while we're at it, can everyone please stop saying "I don't know how you do it". It makes it sound like I've made some crazy life decision to work and raise kids. Yet, in reality, the majority of Australian mums work according to the ABS, including 53 percent of those whose youngest is under five and 75 percent of those whose youngest is between six and 14.
We all need to respect each other's choices -- to work or not, stay at home or not. Every mother and father makes that difficult and deeply personal decision and we all come to terms with it in our own way. While being a working mum suits me perfectly, I completely understand why someone would choose to stay home.
So, when you're chatting with a working mum, feel free to ask her about her kids, or enquire about the biggest challenge she's facing at work right now. But if you want to discuss the minefield that is work/life balance, avoid the questions above.
Actually, to make this really easy, avoid any question that you wouldn't ask a working father.