You’re a working parent or planning to become one. And you’re feeling daunted, conflicted, exhausted—or all three—by what you’re going through, or by what lies ahead.
How could you not? It’s already hard to lead a healthy, full life and succeed on the job, much less build a long-term career. When you then also become a mother or father, and are raising children you love more than anything, it stretches you to extraordinary new limits: personal and professional, practical and emotional. It’s normal to be overwhelmed.
But what if things could be different? Think what it would be like to have more confidence in your ability to combine work and family—and a clear, realistic view of how to do so over the next eighteen years. Imagine that instead of all this working-parent guilt and stress, you felt more capable, more calm. Picture your many working-parent questions being met with simple, straightforward answers, and having a thoughtful, experienced group of working mothers and fathers right beside you all along this route, ready to give advice and encouragement. Well, each of those things is possible—and they’re what Workparent is all about.
This book is your guide to combining career and children. It covers what you need to know and do to be the professional, parent, and person you want to be from the day you find out you’re expecting until the day your child leaves home.
In these pages, you’ll get advice for handling practical challenges like planning your leave, finding great childcare, managing your packed calendar, advocating for advancement, getting the right kind of flexibility, even getting a healthful family dinner on the table after a long day of work. We’ll also look at effective ways for navigating more-personal and -nuanced challenges, like dealing with difficult feelings and less-than-supportive coworkers; truly connecting with your kids when you do have time with them; or fitting parenting together with your professional ambitions (even when those two things seem fundamentally at odds). Whatever profession you’re in or type of family you have, Workparent will help you move from enduring working parenthood to taking charge of it, and in your own, authentic way.
Does that sound too aspirational? Unrealistic, even? If that’s what you’re thinking, I welcome your skepticism. In fact, I used to share it.
Back when I worked as a corporate-careers and -leadership expert, the talented men and women I supported regularly confided in me: not only about their professional ambitions and on-the-job wins, stresses, and stumbles—but also about the tough time they were having working while raising kids. After my management seminars, participants would come up and ask how to squeeze child-related responsibilities onto their packed to-do lists. Normally poised, articulate professionals came to me panicked when they found out they were expecting but didn’t know how to tell the boss. Once, during last-minute prep for an important meeting, the executive I was helping rehearse his pitch suddenly went quiet. His son had been sick, he said, and it was impossible to focus.
Of course, just like every other professional in my field, I’d been aware of the “work/life” issue for years. But because of my particular specialty and seat—doing one-on-one coaching for professionals who were really beginning to hit their stride in their careers, and doing that work as a behind-the-scenes insider in each organization—I had a up-close, nonretouched view of the problem, a view that few other people have. I saw all the annual performance reviews and spent hours with people trying to figure out how to do well at work while being loving, on-the-job parents. I’d finish up a “who should get promoted” discussion with senior leaders and then go straight into a coaching session with someone eager for promotion but worried that it meant even more time away from the kids. Managers told me about their high expectations for their people, and those same people told me about their lack of sleep and hunt for decent childcare.
Work/life? No—this wasn’t an abstraction I was dealing with, or an issue that would fit neatly inside a single euphemistic label, and my coachees weren’t numbers on a page. They were real individual human beings who, behind closed doors, talked with me about feeling tired, uncertain, and alone, who described loving their work and their kids at the same time but getting ground down trying to do right by both. The more I listened, the more my coachees revealed. Many told me they felt guilty or helpless—like bad parents and professional failures. (The words bad and fail came up a lot.) Sometimes it felt as if I were standing at a busy intersection with career pressures and expectations whizzing by in one direction, and personal goals, feelings, and family needs running just as fast in the other. I had a full view of both lanes, but I didn’t know how to play traffic cop or prevent the inevitable accidents. And accidents there were—of many kinds. I saw immensely talented parents change jobs or even leave their careers outright in a bid for relief. Others stayed the course, but gradually lost their confidence, energy, and mojo.
I tried to help, but nothing from my years of organizational-psychology practice or leadership-development work, or even from my MBA degree, had ever really prepared me to teach people how to bring together self, career, and children. And as I gradually realized, I could executive-coach someone until the cows came home but if that person also had six-month-old twins that weren’t sleeping, or was having trouble finding decent daycare, my impact was going to be limited. Nor could I find any practical advice, or answers. Despite searching mountains’ worth of career and psychology literature, I couldn’t find anything under the category of “sustainable work success, with kids.”
When I had my own first child the problem became acute and personal. Back at work after leave, I struggled to find a feasible schedule. Each day felt like a test of speed, agility, and endurance as I raced between client meetings and care changeovers, coaching sessions and diaper changes. So much was unclear: How was I supposed to tell my boss’s boss that I was focused on promotion even though I’d just had a baby (and could anyone out there reassure me that that was even OK to begin with)? What was the right amount to spend on childcare while my husband and I were saving to buy our first home? Were there ways to manage the stress of a more-than-full-time job and a tiny person who needed me? When working long hours, how could I still be a present, loving parent?
Remember: I was the careers and leadership expert. Helping people find the most-effective ways to do their jobs was my stock in trade, but I was coming up empty handed for my clients and for myself. Not only did I not know how to help the moms and dads I worked with alleviate the constant sense of guilt so many of them walked around with—but I also had no clue how to tell my colleagues I needed to leave the office early when my little one spiked a fever. Talk about humbling!
I couldn’t imagine facing eighteen more years of similar pressure—and figured somebody had answers. So I did what came most naturally to me, as a career coach, business journalist, and concerned parent: I started asking questions.
One by one, I approached friends, mentors, and trusted colleagues who had kids and seemed “together.” I told them that I needed some personal help (true), and that I wanted to know what habits, life hacks, or guiding principles made having a busy career and kids not just doable, but thrive-able. What’s your best advice on working parenthood? How can I manage myself, my career, and my family simultaneously? What do you wish you had known from the get-go about combining career and kids? Starting small, I quickly expanded the circle and grew bolder, asking senior people I worked with, people I met at professional conferences, friends of friends of friends, folks next to me in line at the supermarket … in fact, nearly every working parent I met, because what I heard was surprising, and incredibly motivating.
First, every single parent I spoke to—male and female, biological and adoptive, gay and straight, in every profession, level, and industry, whatever their beliefs and wherever they lived—felt that they, too, were grappling with the problem. Whether I was talking to someone in a fancy glass-walled office or at the neighborhood playground, these questions created a kind of instant fellowship; I immediately felt less alone. Second, while no parent saw him- or herself as an expert, each was happy to share stories and experiences and able to offer a few powerful kernels of advice. I realized there were tons of techniques and solutions out there, ripe for the picking. And the parents who seemed the most comfortable in their dual roles were not, as I had cynically suspected, the ones with the deepest resources. In fact, they were an incredibly diverse group, in every way but one.
What these parents had in common was an outlook. Regardless of what working parenthood threw at them, they looked ahead and moved forward. They thought things through and made decisions in the context of their whole lives, without labeling themselves as “bad” or apologizing, to anyone. Whether by choice or experience, they had developed a certain here-I-am-ness, a special kind of working-parent resilience. And each saw him- or herself as a whole, complete person, even while performing two distinct and important roles. I wanted to use all their smart, nuts-and-bolts ways of handling working parenthood, and I wanted to be that kind of working parent myself.
Shortly after starting this research, I began dispensing the advice I’d gathered to my clients in a specially distilled, highly concentrated form with my own human-capital and coaching expertise whisked in. For a new parent fretting about finding a good childcare provider, I’d deliver a best-insights-from-other-parents briefing—combined with the most powerful interviewing and assessment techniques I’d picked up over many years of doing talent assessments myself and some you-can-do-this type encouragement. I offered “back from parental leave” tutorials to anyone who wanted them; essentially, the smartest things I’d heard from other veteran parents on the topic, along with the practical guidance I’d give any leader transitioning into a new role. For parents who found themselves at that I can’t take this anymore breaking point (ever been there? I have), I’d gently help them pick apart their calendar and commitments until it all seemed manageable again.
To my delight, these sessions worked. Mothers and fathers who had come to see me glum about their prospects for ever finding any kind of flexibility would call a few months later to happily tell me that they had figured out a viable schedule and sold their boss on the new arrangement. Parents who had worried how to announce they were leaving work for the school play reported back that, using the special working-parent verbal jujitsu moves I’d given them, it wasn’t so awkward after all. Others reported that yes, they had accepted the big new job or promotion—but that using the techniques we had reviewed together, they felt as confident in their parenting as ever. Word began to spread. Men and women I’d never met before started reaching out for my advice, and what had started as an off-the-edge-of-my-desk project gained momentum. I began writing about working parenthood for Harvard Business Review, decided to refocus my career, and founded the specialist coaching and training firm I run today.
In the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of parents around the world, as researcher, adviser, and fellow working parent. They’ve included mothers and fathers from different cultures, professions, family structures, and beliefs; parenting children of different ages; in Manhattan, Mexico, Mumbai, and places in between; who’ve shifted careers and dealt with setbacks of different kinds; who work every conceivable schedule and are raising children with unique needs. In other words, they represent the full range and reality of who we are as modern working parents.
This guide consists of their advice and encouragement, blended with my own expertise in career development, my insider’s know-how as to the ways managers and organizations approach people-management and people decisions, and my own day-to-day experiences as a parent, living every inch of this problem, just like you. I deliver it to you as I would to my in-person clients: as your coach, with the sole agenda of helping you achieve success and satisfaction as a working parent, however you define them. That means I’ll teach, push, challenge, and encourage you every step of the way until you get there, and we can both feel confident that you will.
As we go, you’ll find very few statistics or references to academic research, and you won’t see any quotations from prominent workplace or parenting experts. That’s because in our work together you’re at the center of things. You know the details of your family and career and workplace and relationships and preferences better than anyone else, and you make the choices. You’re the expert, and that’s how we’ll treat you. That might be disconcerting at first, but you’ll quickly become more comfortable making your own, personal decisions without the need for any third-party validation. You’ll become better able to work and to parent at the same time and in your own unique, authentic way. Building your skills, and confidence, and sense of being in the driver’s seat, all at the same time: that’s what good coaching does, and what you’ll find in the pages ahead.
While this book will help you chart your course through working parenthood, my hope is that it will also allow you to experience yourself in a new way: as a workparent—a whole, complete person capable and deserving of success in both spheres of your life and at the same time. That new way of thinking will be invaluable in this role—one which may be new for you, and in reality is new for every working mother and father. Here’s why.
When you think “working parent,” you may think of your parents or grandparents and how despite working hard to earn a living, they sat down to dinner with you every night. Or you may think of the more-senior leaders in your organization who somehow seemed to make working parenthood work despite serious professional pressures. Your mind may even drift back to TV shows you watched growing up, in which the parent characters were apparently able to balance the personal and the professional without undue strain. With those images in mind, you’re left believing that good parents always eat with their kids or that combining career and kids is possible if I work hard enough or similar.
But your life is likely very different, in many ways. In those TV shows, maybe one parent worked and the other focused on the home front. Today that’s true for only 25 percent of American working families; the rest are dual-career or single-parent families. Perhaps your parents or other family members spent the bulk of their working years with a single employer, but statistically speaking, you’ll probably be in your current role for only four years—and you may therefore be feeling pressure to network and manage your LinkedIn profile during what would otherwise be family time. Remember also: if your mentors and career role models had kids prior to 2007, they didn’t have to work and parent amid the always-on expectations and 24-7 pressures created by the smartphone. In other words, the expectations you’re holding yourself to likely don’t match your current reality. Maybe when you were little, your parents worked extraordinarily hard and the family budget was tight, but Mom probably didn’t have to panic as much as you do about her job getting outsourced or becoming technologically obsolete, and Dad didn’t have to spend every evening and vacation glued to a little screen. Being a working parent doesn’t just feel harder than thirty years ago, or than your image of it tells you it should be. It actually is harder.
At the same time, no one and nothing has emerged to help working parents cope. That’s something that every working mother and father is aware of, but it’s recently become more widely acknowledged and understood. Throughout 2020, the global pandemic shone a huge glaring spotlight on the fact that working parents carry an extraordinarily heavy load, and that even “in extremis,” we’re left to find solutions on our own. Maybe you are one of the “lucky” parents who has good working-parent leave, and flexibility, and benefits, and convenient, high-quality, subsidized childcare. Even if you have those wonderful supports, though, they won’t help you turn away from your phone during dinner, or get that dinner on the table after a twelve-hour shift, or help you get through your performance review, or handle the conversations you have with your hard-driving boss about the hours you’re working. They’re not going to print out the worksheets your eight-year-old needs for school, or help you finish up reading all your colleagues’ messages after your kids go to bed, either. Let’s hope, for so many important reasons, that an emergency situation like Covid-19 never comes around again. But let’s also use what’s happened to help us finally acknowledge that we’re in a whole new game here. We’re facing a very large problem, and there’s no more pretending that it doesn’t exist. We need a fresh and comprehensive set of approaches for taming it—throughout our society and in our organizations, certainly, but on a personal level as well, and starting with our own frame of mind. It’s that personal piece that Workparent addresses—and the new tools, confidence, and full-selfness that you’ll begin building, starting from chapter 1.
This book is structured to reflect workparenting as you’ll actually experience it, and to give you the techniques, energy, and emotional support that will be most helpful in real time.
In part 1, “Workparenting, Phase by Phase,” you’ll get the advice, perspective, and encouragement you need starting before your child’s arrival and continuing through the teenage years. In part 2, we’ll cover how to maximize your most important workparent resources along the way: your support network, time, and money. Then, we’ll turn our attentions to how you can achieve the success you want to, both at work and at home. Part 3 will help you fine-tune your plan for getting where you want to go as a working mom or dad. Whatever your goals are, in part 4, we’ll explore how to take the best care of yourself and your family as you pursue them. Finally, in part 5, we’ll go over extra tips and tools for bridging your work and unique family—for bringing together yourself, your career, and your life with the people you love.
Read this book in the way that fits how you think, and that fits your current life. You may prefer to go through it cover to cover; use it as a reference to dip into when you need specific support; or decide to skim around, hopscotching between chapters to get insights on the particular issues most important to you while developing a better sense of workparenting as a whole. If you’re currently expecting, or thinking about starting a family, you’ll want to start at chapter 1, in which we cover some holistic, good-for-every-working-parent advice. But if your daughter starts school next week or your son is already a teenager, it may make more sense to turn directly to chapters 7 and 8, on school and the teenage years, and then circle back to chapter 1 when you have more time. Follow your smarts and intuition: you know what you need. The overall goal here is to get good information and support on a timely basis, while building the important feeling that I’m wise to this game, and I’ve got this.
Whatever your approach, I encourage you to read with a pen and paper (or the electronic equivalent) in hand, with a view toward action, and with an open mind. In each chapter, I’ll guide you through some important self-reflection, challenge your thinking, and encourage you to commit to next steps. We’re going to cover a lot of new ideas here, so it will be helpful to have your reactions down on paper, and over time, reassuring to refer back to your own notes. Of course, just because you’ve jotted an idea down doesn’t mean you’re shackled to it, or that you have to run with everything you find here, and certainly not all at the same time. Your working-parent life is constantly changing, and some techniques you’ll use, put down, and then pick up again later—and that’s fine.
Note that throughout the book I make no assumptions as to whether or not you have a partner, what your family structure looks like, or what kind of community you’re part of. You’re my client. That said, you may very well be workparenting alongside a life partner or coparent, who might also be a working parent, and you may feel as if many of the choices and approaches we cover here need to be taken as “two for the road.” If that’s the case, the advice and information you find in chapter 22, “The Two-Career Couple,” and in chapter 23, “Sole or Almost-Sole Earner,” will be important for you. You and your partner may even decide to work your way through this book together, discussing each bit as you go. If so, simply read all my references to “you” as plural, instead of singular.
Regardless of the details of your family life, I do suggest talking about what you learn here, and how you may want to apply it, with other people. Work through the book with a good friend or another family member. Pull in what you’ve read here during get-togethers with the other moms and dads at work, or in the parents’ group in your neighborhood, or at the preschool. Start a conversation, get those other parents’ advice and coaching, and—most important—feel part of the powerful workparent community: connected, supported, strong.
As your coach, I’m going to be gentle yet relentless in encouraging you to try out and consider many new approaches to working parenthood. We’ll open up the aperture together, and then I’ll trust you to pick from the techniques and tools you find here, focusing in on the ones most relevant and useful, and adapting them to fit. I’ll use every shred of my coaching experience to help you succeed, but what I won’t do is throw down a ton of “have tos,” absolutes, and directives. Except one, right now, which is this: no judgments, ever.
I want you to stop listening to evaluations and critiques about how you’re combining career and family, whether they come from colleagues, the media, social media, your mother-in-law, or anywhere else. Being a working mother or father is hard enough already without catching that kind of flak. Just as important: stop finding fault with yourself, too. Beating yourself up because you just had a difficult daycare drop-off or because you ordered pizza for your family’s dinner again is totally self-defeating. Every ounce of attention and energy you spend on self-criticism only makes it that much harder to perform at your best or be fully available to your children.
Tune out the noise and naysayers. Treat yourself with the same firm kindness you’d use with your own child. Learn from your setbacks without lingering on them. Remind yourself that this is your life, your family, and your career—yours—and that there are no “right” solutions or decisions beyond the ones that work for you.
You’re giving working parenthood everything you’ve got. With that focus and determination, and trusting your own genuine, deep-down sense of the professional, parent, and person you want to be, you’re in the perfect place to move forward.
Ready? Then let’s turn the page together—and get started.