Working Parents Need a “Parenting Posse”
by Alison Beard
On a typical Monday, at the start of a super-busy workweek for me, one of my mom friends, Heather, picked up my daughter from school and kept her into the evening. On Tuesday, another mom friend, Nicolle, drove my son to his 5:45 p.m. basketball practice. On Wednesday, Tricia handled the cooking-class-to-home carpool. On Thursday, Sarah chaperoned both of our daughters at skating. And, on Friday, Rebecca helped me think through a tricky situation at the office.
I’m so grateful to have what every parent with a job outside the home needs: a parenting posse. This is a group of fellow moms and dads—at my kids’ school, in our neighborhood, and at the office—who support me in the extremely messy business of balancing my work and home lives well.
You might not think that an upper-middle-class knowledge worker like me would need this help. My husband and I both have busy jobs but relatively flexible schedules. We’re able to work from home. Right now, our business travel is limited. And we can afford to pay an afternoon sitter to assist with childcare and driving. But I suspect that we would struggle mightily to maintain our careers if we couldn’t call on others to fill in the gaps.
In the past, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins might have played this role. But most of us live and work too far away from our extended families for that to happen anymore. Friends must become family. When you’re a working parent, especially one whose kids have outgrown simple day care or nanny situations but can’t yet drive or take public transportation on their own, that network—your posse—is how you survive.
Here’s how to build and use one effectively.
When you’re managing a demanding job and busy kids, there’s a tendency to be laser-focused on whatever task is at hand. At the office, you bang away at your projects, attend all your meetings, and eat at your desk; you don’t have time for coffee room chitchat or lunch with colleagues. At school or activity drop-offs and pickups, you aim to be in and out; at classroom or birthday parties, you focus on your kids, not the other parents. While understandable, these strategies are misguided; they might save you some time in the short term, but they prevent you from building the relationships key to long-term success in your work-life juggle.
Most of my cubemates at HBR—and many of the colleagues with whom I work closely—are also working parents. We talk a great deal about our kids, not just their ages and grades but also their academic highs and lows, extracurriculars, personality quirks, likes and dislikes. We are closer colleagues because we share these stories—and more willing and able to help one another out. When I’m late for a podcast taping because I’ve had to deliver a forgotten backpack, I can text my cohost Dan, who has three kids, and our producer Curt, dad to a toddler, and they both understand. When I’m unexpectedly working from home because someone has come down with strep, my next-desk-over friend Amy, mom of two grown boys, emails me files with a sweet “I’ve been there” note.
In my personal life, I’ve learned to relish the moments I catch with other parents in the school lobby or on warm-weather evenings in the neighborhood playground. Even when I’m racing to the office or keen to get back to my laptop, I stop to check how people are doing, hear their news, and sometimes just hang out. I’ll admit that when my kids were very little, I initially gravitated to other working mothers, thinking we’d have more in common. But I quickly learned that stay-at-home moms (and dads) could be close friends and amazing allies, too. When you engage with a broad swath of fellow parents, you widen everyone’s circle of support.
This essay is about getting help, yes, but I recommend giving it first. As Wharton professor Adam Grant has documented, the people who are most successful at building networks and bolstering their careers as a result are those who offer their time, energy, and advice to others without expecting anything in return. Of course, this initial generosity starts a virtuous cycle of reciprocity. When we help people, they instinctively want to help us in return, and vice versa.
How does a busy working parent make time for that? When trying to connect with parents at your school or in your community, it can be as simple as offering to set up a post-practice carpool and handle the first run on an evening when you don’t have to work late. Maybe you can’t host an after-school playdate, but your sitter could, or you might volunteer to arrange one for the weekend. If your classroom parent is asking for people to contribute food and drinks for the next school get-together, sign up immediately for something easy like juice, napkins, or store-bought bagels.
On snow days in Boston, when schools are closed, my neighborhood friend Melanie, a realtor with three rowdy boys, employs this strategy: She immediately texts every boy mom within a half-mile radius (there are many scattered throughout our city streets) and offers to take their kids for the morning. If she’s lucky, someone else—occasionally me—will volunteer for the afternoon. Sometimes, she keeps the crew for the whole day. But if she ever needs someone to babysit while she’s showing a house or meeting a client, she has a dozen of us to call on.
At the office, simply treat your fellow working parents the way you would want to be treated. Encourage them to work from home when it makes their family lives easier. Cover for them when they need to leave early or come in late. Notice when they seem to be struggling and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Regularly offer words of encouragement and, when appropriate, advice.
Make the Ask
Many working parents, and particularly working moms, are keen to prove they can do it all. You don’t want to seek out special treatment from your boss or colleagues or depend on other parents to take care of your kids. Abandon those notions. Get comfortable asking for help.
The first step is to understand that people like assisting others more than we realize, as psychologist Heidi Grant has noted. Often, they don’t consider it a burden. In fact, it makes them feel good. Even if you haven’t yet initiated the cycle of reciprocity I describe above, don’t underestimate how willing most people (particularly fellow parents) are to lend you a hand.
My colleagues know that the best time to schedule meetings with me is during school hours because I’ve politely asked them to make that accommodation. It’s not always possible, but they know I’d like them to try. On the home front, I used to feel guilty about help requests, especially at the last minute, but my posse responds so positively to every ask that I’ve stopped worrying about it. I send texts like these: “Just left the office so won’t make pickup in time. Any chance you could grab E?” “Forgot the sitter is away today. Would you mind taking an extra kid after school?” “Anyone able to give J a ride?” And the answers are always: “Sure!” “No problem!” “I can!”
Learn from Others
My view is that there are no universal rules to follow because each kid, each parent, and each parent–child relationship is unique. But I do firmly believe that we become better working parents when we talk through our problems with others in the same position and listen to and learn from them.
The best piece of working-parent advice I think I’ve ever received came from my colleague and dear friend Scott, dad to two girls, five and eight years older than mine. I’d been worrying that, in what little time I had with my kids in the mornings and evenings, I was focused more on discipline than fun. I didn’t want them to think of me as someone who was either absentee (when at the office) or a scold (when at home). Scott’s response: “It’s not your job to be their friend. Your job is to make them better people.” I felt instantly reassured and have shared this wisdom with many others.
More recently, I was chatting with a dad whose son and daughter go to school with mine; he’s also a pediatric cardiologist. We had a long conversation about middle schools, work, politics, climate change, and health care. He could tell I was stressed about many of these things and at the end of our conversation said something like: “You know, in my job and in the world, there are so many things I can’t control. So I try to focus on those things I can.”
None of us are dealing with exactly the same issues, but chances are your working-parent friends, in both your professional and personal worlds, have navigated similar ones or know other people who have. So observe them, talk to them, lean on them. These sessions can be impromptu, but consider also planning regular check-ins with the inner circle of your posse. Dan and I have had adjoining desks since we started at HBR 10 years ago, and any time we both have a free moment, we make sure to quickly catch up on work and family matters. Similarly, my friend of 20 years, Rebecca, a fellow writer-editor, Financial Times alum, and mom of two, and I aim for a weekly lunch, coffee, or walk to discuss what’s going on in our lives.
Balancing a career and a family isn’t something you must do alone or with only your partner. Create your own parenting posse. There’s a reason it’s a cliché; we do get by with a little help from our friends.
Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, March 4, 2020 (product #H05GEP).