EXECUTIVE IMPACT

The Kids Are Alright. The Parents Are Not

By Leah Fessler

We always knew that “work life balance” was a myth — especially for working parents. The pandemic blew our cover. Now we’re left asking whether this period of intense exposure will be net positive for working parents, or create even more hurdles for us to overcome.

We can’t sugarcoat this: We are not ok. While we admire stay at home moms, we didn't sign up to be one — let alone one with a full-time job and murky homeschooling responsibilities. We busted our asses to earn professional authority. We made sacrifices to set up childcare for our kids. And then the rug was ripped out from under us.

Of course, we know we are lucky. We must remain grateful for our countless privileges. But that perspective doesn’t change the reality that we’re losing our minds. Plus, as women, we're inevitably shouldering the brunt of the work.

We’re also paranoid. Will colleagues forget the hectic realities of being a working parent? Will employees prefer hiring childless or single colleagues after this crisis, aware that parents’ productivity may have took a hit? Will our single colleagues grow resentful of taking on extra work?

These concerns are valid and consuming. But the past four weeks have shown that working long hours and showing face are biased signals of organizational commitment, explain Danna Greenberg, professor of organizational behavior at Babson College, and Jamie Ladge, professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University. Danna and Jamie are co-authors of Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths Through Work and Motherhood.

“The myth of the ‘ideal worker’ as someone who is completely devoted to one’s career with no outside life is both unattainable and undesirable,” say Danna and Jamie. “But without major disruptions, this myth continues to plague many working parents.” Quarantine proves how outdated and problematic this norm really is.

Leaders across industries now see that it's impossible to balance childcare with full-time employment. This visibility should inspire respect and positive change. To many, it proves that universal child care is a human right, and that being a stay at home parent is a full-time job.

Studies repeatedly show that diverse employees with interdisciplinary skills make teams more creative, collaborative, and productive — and parental status is key to the diversity equation. “Working parents have always juggled complexities and shifting priorities,” say Danna and Jamie. “Today’s circumstances are just very different.”

On paper, parents may not be as productive as their colleagues right now. But organizational value cannot be measured strictly in output. The cognitive diversity, adaptability, and strategic prioritization parents contribute are exactly the skills leaders need to navigate this crisis. This is a moment to learn from parents, not judge us.

Quarantine may also benefit working parents by exposing under-discussed needs, such as dads getting more involved in childcare, and companies recognizing caregiving responsibilities beyond early childhood — which few organizations presently support.

Whether you’re a working parent metaphorically caught with your pants down, or literally flashing your naked toddler on Zoom, you should be proud. “You have been doing this all along, just not as openly,” explain Danna and Jamie, both parents themselves. Colleagues without kids see your struggles more clearly than ever, and respect you for it. It may not seem obvious right now, but this exposure gives organizations no option but to adjust. Ignoring the dissonance of being a working parent is no longer an option.

As for the pressure we put on ourselves, we need to figure out how to scale back. We’re in this for the long term. “We all know that kids don’t learn a ton in May and June, anyway,” says Dr. Hanni Flaherty, therapist, clinical social worker, and parent of two young children. “It’s April. Right now, your kids psychological and sociological wellbeing is more important. They’re learning resiliency and how to cope in times of crisis — these are lessons we can teach them right now. They will learn their numbers, letters, and colors when they go back to school. That’s not your job. They will go to college. This will not ruin them, it will make them stronger.”

As women and mothers, we feel like we need to be just as productive now as we were before. We don’t want to lose our jobs. We want to thrive. But this is a global pandemic. Being equally productive is impossible. To protect ourselves for the future, we need to do everything to preserve ourselves in the present.

“Don’t underestimate the power of saying no,” says Hanni. “No, I won’t take on this project. No I cannot do this extra thing right now.” If you need to say yes, extend some deadlines. “Yes, I will do this, but it will take me longer than usual because it’s a global pandemic, and I have kids at home. Thank you in advance for understanding.”

Finally, know that many of the stressors you're feeling are actually internal. “We’re putting tremendous pressure on ourselves, and that blinds us from seeing that our colleagues do not expect us to do everything we did before,” Hanni explains. “If you cannot take that meeting right now, say so. Set those strict boundaries for yourself. If other people aren’t respecting them, let’s figure out why.”

You are the leader. You have the right to hold your boundaries. The future is uncertain, but quarantine will likely continue. Then it will end. We are in this together.

Published April 10, 2020