The global pandemic forced a lot more grace for working parents, but there's still a ways to go. Personally, it can sometimes be frustrating as a working parent to be lumped into a "mom" category by coworkers who don't have kids, and it can feel like my work ethic gets dismissed or challenged. Mom is just one of my labels: I can still be an employee, too.
Working parents are also brilliant multitaskers, one of many skills they have been forced to learn in the last 2 years. I remember in 2020 during a daycare shutdown having to change a dirty diaper while pitching a joint project with a partner. With a phone on speaker on the shelf near my head and my daughter staying blessedly silent, my coworker was shocked when I revealed what I was actually doing in the debrief afterwards.
So if you don't have kids - maybe by choice, or if you aren't there yet - here are some ways you can help out some of the working parents on your team.
1 - Empathy
It may be obvious, but let's start here. Think of your worst night's sleep, then multiply it by every night for at least 6 months, with no breaks. Then imagine having to be bright-eyed for a meeting, presentation, or even showing up at the office. Working parents have a lot going on that you don't see, so being understanding of their lives outside of the office can be incredibly supportive. How? I'm so glad you asked:
2 - Flexibility
Being flexible is one advantage you have that the working parent does not, most especially with their time. If their availability is limited, look at your own calendar and see where you can compromise. We don't mean to cancel meetings at the last minute, but sometimes our kid runs a fever or the babysitter doesn't show up. Do what you can to help parents when something comes up on the home front: offer to send notes from a meeting they missed, or cancel your weekly check in with them and send them an email outlining things instead.
3 - Accommodate
Parental leave in the US is a joke. We barely have time to have the children before we are expected back at work - often a mere 6 weeks later, if that. Maybe it's paid, maybe it's not. Do what you can to advocate for the new parents of tomorrow: what is your maternity leave policy? Can it be better? Can it be longer, or can it be paid? Can paternal leave be extended or enhanced as well? New moms coming back to the office also need a space to pump - and a bathroom stall or a supply closet is unacceptable, I don't care how small a company you are. These simple accommodations will be one less thing new parents have to worry about, and they are worrying about a lot right now in raising tiny humans or getting ready to welcome them.
4 - Respect their time
Do not ask me to have a call at 8am while I am dropping off my kids. I also work hard during the day so I can leave to get my kids and start my 2nd shift (which weirdly I look forward to after a full day of work), so don't ask me to stay later for happy hours or dinners. See if your culture can better respect time constraints of working parents: perhaps have a team lunch during working hours, or being strict about only booking important meetings during reasonable working hours. Now is not the time to demand above and beyond time commitments from the working parent.
5 - Offer to Help
Be proactive about what you can do to help support working parents. Often working moms especially are constantly trying to defy the laws of time and space and tend to overcommit. If you are their manager, see what you can take off their plate or that can be delegated to another team member. Have honest conversations about their workload and what can be reprioritized. Also make sure they have some balance in the type of work that they have - they have the necessary work, but make sure they have a project or two that they are truly passionate about so they find some fulfillment at work. This can also help alleviate some burn out.
The Bottom Line
The capabilities of working parents are extraordinary. Can you imagine the leadership skills they are developing during this time in their lives? I for one have improved my creativity and negotiating skills - toddlers and preschoolers are no joke when it comes to getting them out the door in the morning (and I'm doing that solo!) While all of the above is incredibly helpful to working parents, its important for you as their colleague to understand that this period in their lives is not forever. Every day, my kids need me less and less ((chokes back tears)) and one day, will require very little of my time to survive. Working parents need to be allowed the flexibility to have this precious time with their children, and shouldn't have to sacrifice being a valued team member too: and I can guarantee the long-term investment will definitely pay off.
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