Parents: We Need to Talk About Workplace Culture
I dropped out of traditional 9-5 work when I had my twins. Knowing that childcare for my three kids would outpace my take-home pay, I decided to commit to freelance, full-time.
But truly, the struggle began when I got pregnant with my first son. Perhaps even before that—when I got married and became a marked woman for life, wearing my child-bearing years like the scarlet letter.
I’ve returned to offices a few times since—for the odd contract or project. But every time has been fraught with guilt at home, and guilt at work, feeling like I was never really doing anything particularly well, torn as I was between two places. And each time, I returned to my home office even more determined not to go back.
I always thought it was my own industry that essentially edged me out, but the more moms I talk to, the more women I meet who have been outed from their respective workplaces and industries.
It’s not surprising, even, when you look back over time. As Ann Douglas writes in her book Happy Parents Happy Kids, “…There have been seismic shifts in the world of work and yet few corresponding workplaces or social policy shifts to help us manage that load.”
I’m going to try to restrain myself from quoting Ann’s entire chapter on “work-life imbalance,” but suffice to say that between the economic pressure on dual-income families—never mind single parents—and today’s culture of “total work,” it’s no wonder parents are feeling time stressed. Ann points to such everyday occurrences as incompatibilities between the school day and the workday, not to mention how government offices and medical services “seem to assume that there’s a parent at home during the day ready to function as a full-time appointment concierge.”
I’ve been talking a lot lately about having a village. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And while the assumption is usually that the village means grandparents and aunts and uncles, I’m seeing more and more how the village can also be your community: your neighbours, fellow parents at school, and yes, your work—why not? I mean every brand today is trying to get under the covers with us—in our homes, in our fridges, in our shopping carts. Why shouldn’t they shoulder some of the load? You do want our business after all, don’t you?
But it’s not just dollars and cents. If companies want to become part of the community, they should have to pull their weight on the home front as well and walk the talk. And that means supporting parents in the ways that they can. Which means not calling us when we’re on our hard-earned vacation with the kids. And letting us clock out at the end of the day so we can focus on our families.
The key, it would seem, is flexibility. As this Forbes article cites, a 2016 survey by FlexJobs found that working parents ranked workplace flexibility ahead of salary. A whopping 84% of working parents said work flexibility is the number one most important factor in a job, with work-life balance ranking in as a close second at 80%. And according to a LinkedIn survey, as reported on Bizwomen, while people generally love the idea of perks like free food and game rooms, research shows that this is actually one of the least enticing factors for keeping professionals at their current companies. Rather, the most popular benefits were flexible hours, more vacation time and work-from-home options.
Though many companies like to think and say they are family-friendly, holding somebody’s job while they’re on mat leave and letting people bring their kids in for Take Your Kid to Work Day once a year is not it.
Saying it and doing it are two completely different things.
We need sick day allowances for families with kids—for the kids and not just for the parents. When I used to report to an office every day, I used to forgo my own sick days—coming in with migraines and backaches, just so I could use my sick day allowance when my kid really needed me. That’s not looking after moms or dads.
We need flexible work arrangements that let grownups be grownups, responsible and accountable for their own tasks regardless of the time frame that that happens in as long as timelines are met. Board room meetings that start at 9 am, 4 o’ clock brainstorms and 5 pm conference calls that assume 24-7 childcare are not family friendly. Sure parents can make it happen—parents are always making everything happen—but the stress before, during and after isn’t conducive to their best work—in the office, or at home.
These are just the basics. I could go on about the sociological, environmental and communal benefits of job sharing, remote work and other flextime arrangements. I could talk about companies vying for my head-of-the-house dollars but undervaluing my contributions in their very workplaces. I could talk about companies that spend thousands of dollars hiring agencies to survey their treasured demographic when all they have to do is ask the moms on their team—if they have them. And if they don’t, they really should ask themselves, well, why the hell not?
But let’s start with baby steps. And I’m not just talking about moms; we need to do the same for dads. For all caregivers—if you’re not one now, chances are, you’ll be one soon too.
I’m not a big fan of the nanny state—I don’t expect anybody to babysit me. But if a company thinks that it’s important to host after-hours happy hours, ping pong tournaments and weekend retreats to engender loyalty and goodwill among their employees, maybe they should look at what they’re doing in terms of ensuring the basic necessities for work-life balance for the parents and caregivers on their team. Not only as a business but as a member of the community.
It’s in everyone’s best interest—business, government, neighbours and even co-workers—to support parents, as a community, and as investors in our shared future.