Sure, the first year of working parenthood was a huge adjustment—but these next several years are likely bringing change on a scale and of a speed you’ve rarely had to deal with before. All of a sudden the baby’s walking … and talking. Then she’s three, and demanding to know why you have to leave her to go to work each morning and why she can’t have the iPad again. Or with everything that’s happening at home, the new schedule you just went to great lengths to negotiate with your boss isn’t meeting your needs anymore. It may feel as if every time you find a good working-parent groove, things shift and you have to find all-new ways to cope. You’re constantly flexing, and reinventing—and fortunately a few simple, powerful, consistent strategies will help you do so. During this time of constant change, here are ways to stay on your front foot, both at home and on the job.
During the first year of working parenthood, your beginning- and end-of-workday caregiving transitions were critical but fairly straightforward. Conversations with your care provider centered mostly on timing and logistics: on feeding and napping schedules, for example. But as your child grows, his needs change and become significantly more complex. Eating and sleeping are still important, but so are his emotional development, socialization with other children, physical abilities, and growing readiness for the eventual start of full-time school. With so much in flux, the partnership you have with your caregivers becomes ever more important, and important to get right. Good communication is essential now, and in this relationship, morning and evening handoffs are your main connection points. As you enter Year Two, it can be helpful to rethink how to use these daily check-ins.
A visible schedule
Your child may be too young to tell or understand time, but be certain to talk with him about daily plans, particularly if your work or caregiving schedule is complex or varies. Starting each morning understanding the basic “pegs” of his day—who will be dropping him off, whether he’ll be doing the extra hour at daycare, who will be putting him to bed, etc.—lets him feel safe and secure. One easy tactic to help here is to make the daily schedule “readable.”
Hang up a cork or magnet board at his eye level in some visible, high-traffic area of the house, and each morning tack up pictures, in chronological order, of what he’ll do and who will take care of him during the day: A photo of Mom (who will take him to daycare), followed by an image of the daycare building, then a picture of the sitter who will pick him up, and so on. He’ll be proud of being able to decipher the schedule by himself, and you’ll feel better when you’ve made his day understandable and familiar.
At some point during the toddler phase, the moments of reconnection you have with your child after each workday will become frustrating and emotionally fraught. This is due to a fundamental difference in how adults and children are wired, and how you each want that precious time together each evening to begin.
While adults relate to and show affection for each other by talking and asking questions, children can’t. Get home after work, eagerly ask your three-year-old, “How was your day?” and you’ll most likely get a blank stare, an “I don’t know”—or be completely ignored. When you’ve been looking forward to seeing her all day and stopped work early to be able to hang out with her before her bedtime, that lukewarm response can be disappointing—and feel like a rejection. But it’s nothing personal: at this very young age, your child simply doesn’t have the ability to sort and categorize her experiences the same way you do, or to capture her feelings in words.
What will work to make those pivot points easier and more rewarding for both of you is action: doing things together, instead of talking. As soon as you arrive at the daycare center, get down on the floor and join in whatever game she’s playing. Or when you arrive home, pull out a puzzle or toy to enjoy together, put on some of her favorite music and ask her to dance, or encourage her to act along in her play kitchen while you’re cooking dinner. Better yet, let her lead; simply ask, “What should we play?”—and then follow along with what she chooses. Unhurried, engaged in an activity she has chosen, and without any pressure to go back and forth in adult-style conversation, your child will feel much more at ease, those transition moments will go more smoothly—and talk will quickly follow.
‘‘Every morning when I get up, I create an ‘invitation to play.’ I set up a game or a toy in an interesting way that I know will engage him—something creative but not complicated. This morning it was a little cave made out of blocks with a couple of his animal figures inside.
When he wakes up, he runs to find what I’ve left for him. If I’m still at home, we can have fun with it together. If I have to leave early for the salon, he’ll show me what he’s doing over FaceTime. It’s our little ritual, and it’s a win-win-win. He’s excited and looks forward to it, my wife gets thirty extra minutes to chill out and wake up, and I get to interact with him, even if I’m not there.”
—Devin, hairdresser, father of one
When you’re carrying around a lot of work stress or feeling harried by a nonstop schedule, this “action first” technique can be easy to forget or tempting to skip. When you’re under pressure, and as you’re nearing home or the preschool, remind yourself, Hugs first, then play, then talk. What feels counterintuitive or like an extra step now will solidify into habit quickly—and those precious end-of-day reunions will become reliably happy, for both you and your child.
While transition moments are critical, so is the rest of the limited time you spend together. Whatever your work schedule, those mornings, evenings, and weekends can feel very short, and you’ll want to make them as enjoyable and high-impact as possible. Your key technique for getting there is R&R: repetition and ritual.
Watch any episode of a TV show made for little kids, or read any children’s book that’s part of a series, and you’ll notice that it’s remarkably similar to the next one. Characters always wear the same outfits, plots always unfold in the same way, and the theme song plays at exactly the same time. The writers and producers all know that predictability helps anchor children—that it makes them look forward to watching the program or having the book read aloud and that they will enjoy it when they do. For your small child, the world is a brand-new and complex place, and when he can see patterns in it or accurately spot what’s coming next, it gives him a sense of security, mastery, and delight. For you, repetition is dull. For your toddler, repetition is wonderful and reassuring.
So borrow this technique—and create rituals of your own. The ones that will work best are ones that feel natural, that can happen frequently, that involve both you and your child, and above all, that are easy to do. If your son knows you’ll pick him up and hug him in the same way when you come through the door each evening, he’ll look forward to it—and be thrilled when it happens. Sing that favorite song together each day on the way home from daycare, begin each Saturday morning with the same breakfast, and tuck him into bed in a consistent way each evening. With little effort, you can weave small but deliberate threads of routine like this throughout the time you have with your child—and make those hours more satisfying, comforting, and happy for both of you.
Now’s the time to start enlisting your child’s help by asking her to do basic self-care and household chores. That doesn’t mean expecting your toddler to do all her own laundry or to de-ice the car, but she can easily handle small, simple tasks like putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket, tidying up toys and games, bringing napkins to the table at dinnertime, or helping to wipe the kitchen counter after a spill. Doing so will build her sense of capability and self-esteem, and get her ready to take on larger responsibilities—like homework, or laundry—later on. Don’t fall into the “it’s faster if I just do it for her” trap, or wait to assign chores when she’s bigger and more capable. The more your kids understand early on that their help is valuable, too, the easier it will be to run your working-parent household.
When your child is very young, work can feel—to him—like a mysterious competitor for your time and attention. Why does Mommy leave every morning? Why can’t Daddy put away the computer or stay home and play? Without decent answers to those questions, your daily commitment to work can be read as abandonment, and the tears, emotions, bargaining, and flat-out tantrums that can result may leave you feeling helpless and guilty.
Talking with your child about work—regularly, honestly, and directly—won’t be a perfect solution, but it can help. When she understands why you’re going to work, and that you have to, it can allay a lot of difficult feelings. Over time, it will also allow her to feel more secure in your affections, to take interest and pride in what you do, and to begin to understand work as an important part of your life and ultimately of her own.
The daily goodbye
Whether you’re leaving for a day at work, doing daycare drop-off, or just headed into your home office, be sure to mark your leave, and keep those goodbyes loving, reassuring—and brief. An extended farewell only provides more time for your child to be upset, and if she observes that knee-grabbing hysterics prompt you to hang around for a while, she’ll likely continue. Tell her in a firm but tender way that you know she’s sad, but that her trusted caregiver is with her, and that you’ll be there later in the day to pick her up or to put her to bed. And then go.
If she’s routinely distraught at your departure for work, check with her caregiver(s) as to how long the sadness typically lasts. Most children recover from daily separations quickly; she may be happily playing again less than a minute after you’ve gone. Consider a “goodbye ritual” also—like a certain type of hug, or a favorite song. If she knows that Mommy or Daddy never leaves without giving her a high five at the doorway, but always leaves right after, it will limit the drama and help protect everyone’s feelings.
To help your very small child understand your job and its demands:
‘‘It’s a two-way street: I try to involve my kids in my life as much as I want to be involved in theirs. My youngest is three, and too young to understand what I do yet, but if I need to make a home repair, I take him to the hardware store to get what we need. I’m showing him how the adult world, and adult mind, works.”
—Brant, chief information officer, father of seven
‘‘My son’s only four and a half, but he understands. I work steady midnights, which means 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. When I tuck him into bed, he’ll say, ‘Bye Mommy—have a good night at work!’ This year I did a special visit to his pre-K classroom, wearing my uniform, and talked to the kids about safety. He was ecstatic—and so proud of his mom.”
—Evelyn, police officer, mother of one
Between ages one and five, your child will become increasingly more physically active, more interactive, and more vocal. You’ll be more tired, and it will be harder to get work done when he’s around—to find the quiet time you need on a Sunday to square off all the details on an important project before a Monday deadline, for example. This is when you’ll likely start having anxiety about screen time. Should you give your three-year-old the iPad and enjoy twenty more minutes of badly needed sleep? Allow him to watch TV while you’re emailing with your boss? Use the latest Disney film as a sitter when you’re working remotely, and without a caregiver? Or should you believe the experts who say that any amount of screen exposure is terrible for small, developing brains? Most working mothers and fathers do all four—and end up feeling all kinds of wrong.
Instead, try to find a moderate, realistic approach that works for the entire family—and that acknowledges the pressure points of your career and daily schedule and the circumstances we’re all in. We’re living in a stressful modern reality here, and allowing a toddler to watch a single fifteen-minute show each morning makes eminent sense if it lets you get showered, dressed, and ready and helps get the whole family out the door to daycare on time. Likewise, when you have to take an important conference call during your vacation, there’s no harm in queuing up one of your child’s favorite movies so you can speak professionally and undisturbed. Landing that big new project may depend on it. It’s likely you watched some amount of TV growing up, and it didn’t derail you, did it? On the other hand, if you find yourself using screens as go-to babysitters or depending on them for hours each day (if you’re abusing them rather than using them), then it’s probably time to cut back or reconsider.
Bonjour, Monsieur iPad!
To make that screen a little less appealing to your young child and make you feel a little more virtuous when you offer it, only allow him to watch shows and movies in a foreign language. Explain that Mr. iPad doesn’t know, or has forgotten how to speak, your native language, and queue up all of your child’s regular favorite programs in another one. Either your little one quickly loses interest and finds something else to do, or he’s exposed to a new language. Either way: you win.
If you are going to allow use of the iPad or TV:
When you became a working parent, you carefully crafted a message for your manager, colleagues, and clients. You told them about your ambition—and new needs—in a compelling, authentic way. Now, a few years later, you may have a new boss, or new responsibilities; the organization’s strategy or budget may have shifted; or the schedule you’re keeping as the parent of a four-year-old may be much different from the one you kept when he was a baby. You may have been promoted, or risk being passed over for promotion if you don’t raise your hand. Things change, people can forget, and even the best and most thoughtful manager or coworkers can’t read your mind. Throughout these first several years, therefore, it’s imperative to stay in control of your story. Fortunately, there are several natural openings in which you can create the overall workparent narrative you want.
When you’re on the phone
C’mon, we’ve all been there: had work conversations interrupted by our small children, and felt mildly embarrassed or unprofessional as a result. While those break-ins are inevitable—little kids simply aren’t capable of understanding work boundaries or phone or videoconferencing etiquette, no matter how often they’re explained—they don’t have to leave you apologizing or distracted.
If you do need to take a call when your little one is around:
When you do get interrupted—which you will—resist the natural instinct to be terse with your child or to start explaining yourself, both of which will make you sound frazzled or not-so-nice and only draw more attention to what you’re trying to downplay. If you need to, ask for a quick break to get your child’s needs sorted out. And don’t be surprised if the person on the other end of the line laughs, or sympathizes: they’ve been there, too.
Even if you were one of the rare mothers or fathers who raced eagerly back to work after parental leave, there will be moments during your first five years of working parenthood when you find yourself mulling over and revisiting your professional choices. You may start thinking about going part-time, changing jobs or careers—or taking a professional break. With so many pressures at work and at home and with your kids growing and changing so rapidly, it’s completely normal to worry about what you’re missing at home, to seek relief from the strain, and to want more slack in the system. The risk you face, though, is in making these kinds of professional choices reactively or hastily—in leaping toward what appears on the surface to be a good solution yet might not ultimately be the right one for you. Before deciding:
No comparing: other parents
It’s normal to look around at how other workparents are managing things, and it’s healthy to seek out their differing perspectives, encouragement, and advice. What isn’t productive is to start benchmarking or evaluating yourself against other moms and dads. How did she get promoted on a part-time arrangement? Should we have our second child now, like everyone else? How do they seem so “together” with twins and big careers, when I feel tired and overwhelmed all the time? The simple answer is: their careers, ambitions, personalities, parenting styles, and budgets are different than yours, and comparisons serve no real purpose. Find support, solutions, and inspiration among your workparent community, but stay focused on what works for you.
‘‘When the kids are this little, and you’re in a tough phase, it feels like it lasts forever. Potty training will drive you cuckoo. I tortured myself about it—but then the phase passes.
The work you put in now will pay off when the kids are older, because you’ve given them a model for managing life and navigating independence. If you make big changes to optimize for this one brief time in your family’s life, you may limit your options later. Picture your kids when they’re twenty-five years old, and the good ways they’ll describe you to their friends, or partner. Play the long game.”
—Karen, macro trends expert, mother of two
If you’ve considered your situation calmly and holistically and you’re still interested in a change to your career or schedule, turn to chapter 15 for advice on negotiating and using flexible working arrangements and/or to chapter 17, which covers breaks, sabbaticals, and other time off.
When you’re working a demanding job and parenting small children with ever-changing needs, it can be easy to let your own friendships go unattended, put hobbies and interests on hold, let exercise or spiritual practices fall by the wayside, and constantly be in go mode, without any time for reflection. And when that happens, you may start losing sight of something vitally important: yourself.
‘‘In our office we work 9:00 to 5:00, but we also see every production, and have networking events three or four nights per week, and there’s a lot of travel to conferences and trade shows. The job demands a lot, but I’m passionate about the work, and my coworkers are a tight-knit group who have each other’s backs. My son is five, and that’s what I hope to show him: that this wasn’t just a job, a paycheck—that I loved what I did, and was contributing.”
—Allison, Broadway marketer, mother of one
As hectic as things are during this baby-to-little-kid period, try to stay involved with the activities and people that were important to you before you were a parent. If you’ve always been close with your college buddies and were an avid runner before your child was born, organize the next get-together—and then lace up those shoes and hit the trail, at least occasionally. Take the time to think through your professional goals, also—and think how you can move closer to them. Keep up with your mentors, and keep asking for their advice.
And along the way, cut yourself some slack. It’s OK to have allowed your toddler an episode—or more—of her favorite TV program, to have lost your cool during her third tantrum of the weekend, to work different hours than you used to, or to be craving unpressured time alone. Your children are always changing, but you are too—and the more you can keep yourself on a good path, the steadier and more confident a working parent you’ll be, both now and in the years to come.