Parenthood is a leadership asset
or, naked zoom bombs and the importance of parenting out loud
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A few months ago, I had an early morning Zoom call with two senior male executives. About 10 minutes into the call, my three-year-old burst into the room completely naked shouting, “I have nipples!” I turned off my camera, muted my mic, hustled her out of the room, and grumbled some choice words at my husband who was supposed to be in charge of the kids.
When I got back on the call, it was clear that these two men were not amused. I finished the call without any additional hiccups, but I was irked. On one hand, the reality of working parenthood is that it’s unpredictable (and when you insist on having a call at 7am, I feel like you’re implicitly signing up for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenario). On the other hand, I felt embarrassed. Had my professionalism been compromised?
The plague of secret parenting
Economics professor Emily Oster says that professional women are beset by “the plague of secret parenting”. She cites academic and anecdotal evidence showing that working moms conceal their identity as parents and downplay the importance of parenting in their lives to appear more “professional”. Why do we feel the need to do this? Oster says:
“When work and parenting seem at odds—because our culture tells us they’re at odds—mothers and fathers feel forced to demonstrate their commitment to one (the work side) by minimizing their concern for the other (the parenting side). They do not want their bosses to think they are anything other than 100 percent committed.”
Of course, COVID has made this false worker/parent dichotomy impossible to maintain. There was no hiding the fact that you’re a parent when your kid kept interrupting your Zoom call because he couldn't find the pencil he needed for his virtual class meeting.
But, for many parents, the anxiety remains. A woman I coach told me that since the start of the pandemic, she has felt the need to be more vigilant about responding to emails promptly to “prove” she’s working and not parenting during work hours. During the height of the Omicron wave, a friend of mine would sign onto video meetings deliberately late to avoid small talk because she was afraid she’d sound distracted and overwhelmed.
What is the consequence of all this hiding and minimizing? When employees feel that they can’t be their authentic selves, they will disengage, burnout, or quit. And that is exactly what’s happening.
Shifting the culture
If organizations are serious about retaining working parents (and particularly working moms), they need to realize that, rather than being a distraction, parenthood is a business asset. Leadership is about influencing people towards a common goal, which means that working parents are constantly leading—whether they’re motivating their unit to meet sales goals, guiding a surgical team through a complex procedure, or inspiring their kids to pick up their shoes.
To be clear, I’m not talking about some sort of quick fix to staunch the bleed of the Great Resignation, but rather a fundamental and permanent paradigm shift. Supporting working parents means more than giving them a dedicated Slack channel or asking executives to display pictures of their own families. It means creating a culture that not only acknowledges, but embraces, the fact that people have lives and families outside work and that these other roles and responsibilities actually enhance, rather than detract from, their professional skillset.
Much of the responsibility for this cultural shift rests on the shoulders of senior leadership, but each of us also has a role in changing the narrative. For starters, we can stop hiding our full selves. I became a different person—and a different employee—when I became a parent. I had greater perspective, became more flexible in my thinking, and developed an even stronger sense of empathy. These changes made me a better boss and team member. That evolution should be celebrated, not hidden.
Without a doubt, there is risk in speaking up, owning our full selves, and parenting “out loud”. But most parents working in a professional setting have some privilege, and therefore some potential to effect change. And perhaps by using our privilege in this manner, we can effect change not just for ourselves, but others in our organizations without as much power.
What would it look like if we stopped apologizing for being parents? What if we set firmer boundaries, said “no” more often, and owned the fact there is more to our lives than work (and that this very fact has the potential to make us more empathic and effective leaders)? What do we have to gain if we stop hiding one of our most important identities? What do our colleagues gain? Our daughters and sons? And, more importantly, what do we (and they) lose if we don’t?
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When I had my first daughter (while working for the organization that still employs me, eight years later), I made a promise to myself that I would never apologize for being a parent, needing to parent, or anything else that came up at work related to my parenthood. I have kept that promise. I don't say sorry when I leave early because my 2nd grader has an orthodontist appointment (nor do I check in online when I am gone and with her). I don't say sorry when my 5yo needs to be picked up from daycare because she is running a fever (nor do I check in online later, when I've gotten her home and settled). I realized from the beginning that even though I work for an amazing org, I needed to train people on what to expect, and if I started apologizing, it would seem there was something to apologize *for,* and then they'd come to expect that. I realize I'm lucky in many ways, and that this is an incredibly difficult topic, but I also think we as parents have some responsibility in this dynamic.