A year ago, I wrote a piece in Huffington Post about the realities for working parents. Over the past 12 months, I've collected stories from hundreds of people through submissions and through my coaching practice. I co-founded a tech solution to support those parents and joined an organization that is making measurable change around parental leave. I've decided to share my thoughts and insights here as I put my book together.
For one of my corporate coaching gigs, I was hired by a mother of a 2.5 year old who had been in a working-mom’s group I facilitated. She was in charge of operations and wanted me to coach the new mothers in her division. Her company’s business model relied on a talented cohort of young employees who are willing to do what it takes to get their independent divisions off the ground. Typically, leaders are recruited in their mid-to-late twenties, worked grueling hours and roseto senior level positions in their early thirties. At which point, some of them started families. When they did, their carefully crafted systems and routines that got them to work at the break of dawn, and allowed them to want to work until everyone else has gone home quickly fades.
The professionals enter the field driven by a passion to help others and show results, but when those results come at the expense of their loved ones everything becomes harder to manage. I was happy to help and excited to get started with this organization. I had lots of thoughts for how to coach and help transform an organization to sustain its top talent after having kids.
We were chatting about this as we chased our two toddlers around on the playground. Before I could start to share ideas or strategies, she interrupted with a few of her own. “Her biggest problem is,” she started as she supervised her daughter on the little kid slide. “Her baby needs a routine. Her 10 month old should be on a different schedule, so that she is able to sleep, take care of herself and do her work efficiently. Can you get her to put her on a schedule?” I had the length of her daughters descent to phrase my response. “No. That’s not how it’s going to work.” I went on to explain how the goal had to be success on her own terms. “Oh yeah, right. I guess…,” she said and she trailed off.
Sometimes the disconnect between policy and practice is more overt. I’ll typically talk to HR coordinators, women’s initiative leaders, or other managers on a conference call before I begin coaching clients at a company or firm. That way they get to know my style and process and I learn about their policies and procedures. They’ll me more about the services they offer their working parent employees and how things work in their company culture. After some brief introductions and a little overview of my experience, I sometimes chime in with some references and anecdotes, stories where employees have been able to use their transition to parenthood as an advantage to become better leaders in their companies. I began to talk about the impact that the shift to parenthood can have on a career and I heard a sigh on the other end of the phone.
“I hate to interrupt,” said one colleague, “but I just have no sympathy for this generation of new mothers. They want to be taken care of, they want to be able to make partner without sacrifice. This firm offers you every opportunity to rise to the top. If you are willing to do what it takes. That’s why we want to offer this coaching program, to help these women decide get on track or get off of it. We can’t waste time on them anymore. They should be grateful that we’re helping at all.”
I was glad we weren’t on video. I am not known for my poker face and I’m sure that something in my facial expression would give away my disdain. The woman who made that comment was not far removed from the women she was describing. She had already made partner, had two kids of her own in elementary school and was head of the women’s empowerment initiative at the firm. She was a multi-tasker, she was a Sheryl Sandberg-eque champion of leaning in. If she could do it, she reasoned, why shouldn’t anyone else? And why should others struggle openly and complain when the firm’s policies were so forward thinking and openly supportive of women like her? If other women and men couldn’t find their way through the system, they should be escorted out of it.
This is the most insidious part of this problem. Policies and programs that address the needs of working parents are one part of the solution. But they are only one small part. Because, hiding the background, are individual expectations and judgements of what’s possible based on biases and broad generalizations. Corporations put policies in place for a variety of reasons. They want to recruit and retain the best talent. They want to be recognized as forward thinking, and committed to the women and families. But too often, the policies are cosmetic. They look great on the outside but they are lost in translation. Because the languages we speak around work and life differ so much it’s hard to parse out and agree on what we view as a good employee, what we view as a good parent, and how comfortable we are with diversity in work and life.
Even if a company is listed as top ten for working mothers or fathers, or dog owners, you could find yourself working for this company and have the opposite experience. You may find yourself months into the new gig posting anonymous complaints on glassdoor.com.
When you head out into the wild world of working parenthood, you see the cracks in the facade of working life. While you can never glue them back together, you can learn to identify what you see in the wilderness, equip yourself with the resources for each situation and align yourself with other travelers who can help you get through the unfamiliar terrain.