When caring responsibilities and work collide

My social media feed has been a flutter with talks about “secret parenting” these past few weeks. Don’t know what I’m talking about?  In her article for The Atlantic, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, says that in addition to employers providing paid parental leave, we need to normalize the experience of parenting while working. She calls for the end secret parenting, where workers feel pressured to pretend that they do not have child-care obligations when at work. It’s well worth taking a look if you haven’t seen it yet.  

Oster gives examples of parents hiding or minimizing evidence of their children at work, calling in sick for themselves when it is actually their child who is unwell – felling that a sick day for themselves is more acceptable than sharing that they need to care for a sick child.  

Cue parents furiously nodding everywhere. Me included. Oster has perfectly described why so many of my new parent clients reach out for support upon their return to work. They feel pressure to parent in secret. Boom!

But parenting in secret is mostly impossible. And when this shows up for a client, I support them to stop compartmentalizing their worlds and to show up authentically as they are. As a real-life human being with parental responsibilities that they are still figuring out how to balance with being a rock star employee. It takes time, and as Oster rightly says, cannot be done when we are hiding what the challenge actually is. 

The end to secret parenting is particularly challenging for those workers who are not desk/office based. Which is actually most of the workforce. Think retail staff, teachers, healthcare professionals, most of the hospitality industry, food and beverage workers, call center workers. And the list goes on. Most retail staff can’t bring their child to work with them when childcare arrangements fall through. Most teachers and healthcare workers can’t work from home.  

And so, in order to end secret parenting, most business leaders (who may be parents themselves) actually need to reconsider what flexibility looks like in the context of their workplace and how they might cater to workers with caring responsibilities.

And sometimes it’s really simple – allowing a retail worker to carry their phone in their pocket while on the shop floor, because their child is unwell, and they need to be contactable. Sometimes it’s more complicated. But it starts with workers being able to ask for what they need, and business leaders being willing to partner with their staff to find creative solutions.

So why? Why should business leaders care? Why should they provide these things? Oster herself points to research that found that “the presence of children is a main driver of the gender gap in career outcomes, even for highly educated workers, because women drop out when their employer can’t accommodate their schedule”. 

Did you read that – parents dropping out of the workforce. Organizations losing talent. Talent that is hard to come by. Talent that the businesses have invested in. Gone. Talent that now needs to be replaced. And that has a cost, both financial and human.

And it’s not just about new parents. What about workers caring for aging or sick family? Or grandparents who have caring responsibilities? How can business leaders create environments that support those workers show up and do good work. What flexibility do they need?

These are big questions – and I love partnering with clients (both businesses and individuals) to figure out what the answers might look like.  So, if you want to chat, reach out. I would love to talk it all through with you.

Until next week,
H