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What working parents need to get through this phase of the pandemic

August 18, 2021, 6:20 PM UTC

Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about how people are working smarter in these turbulent times.

In this week’s edition, S. Mitra Kalita seeks advice on behalf of harried working parents everywhere, including how to balance all the obstacles right now from the Delta variant to school closures, in what feels like most stressful period of the pandemic.

My group chats and social-media feed have been exploding with the tale of the woman who kept her pregnancy, and eventual baby, a secret at work. “It turns out it’s easy to hide a pregnancy when you work remotely. As my stomach grew, I strategically positioned the camera to hide it from view,” Christine Hernandez wrote. “I thought about telling them so many times, but I had made it nearly nine months, and the project I was leading was about to launch.”

Sadly, working parents might understand why she did it. There’s the lukewarm reaction bosses give pregnancy news. Then there’s the upward career trajectory suddenly gone sideways. And then there’s a pandemic where it’s feeling like our entire personal lives (and living rooms) are on display for judgment. In her new book, executive coach Daisy Dowling explores how to achieve balance between the home and work fronts in these most unpredictable of times. It’s called “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids.” I caught up with her for some back-to-school advice—and more. Edited excerpts: 

Mitra: Tell me about how this book came to be.

DD: It has been a really interesting time to publish on working parenthood. This is certainly not the situation I thought the world would be in. 

I wrote this book out of necessity. I worked for many many years as an executive coach inside some big, intense, “failure-is not-an-option” organizations. I could advise people on workplace and career issues. I didn’t know how to help this other important thing to them: How do I do all the career stuff while also being the parent or caregiver that I want to be?

When I became a mom, the problem became very personal. I found myself the executive coach who could advise top performers in stressful Wall Street firms but couldn’t tell the boss they needed to leave for a pediatrician appointment. 

So I went to the bookstore and looked. Where’s the working parent book? I didn’t find it. I saw parenting in one section, careers in another and nothing on nonjudgmental, practical terms that would support a working parent.

Mitra: And this was before the pandemic? 

DD: Yes. I was still in a full-time corporate job. I began doing working-parent coaching off to the side. In 2016, I left my job and hung up my own shingle. 

In 2018, I landed the book deal. Three weeks before the first full draft was due, I found myself in my New York City apartment with two children on lockdown. 

As we look to a new normal, two things were my guiding lights. The first is that every parent is a working parent. The second is respecting the advice of the real experts: a really diverse group of working parents telling me what works. 

Mitra: So what can employers do to better support working parents? 

DD: There are three things that companies need to do. I focus on one of them that I don’t think we talk about enough. 

There are good working parent policies. Example: How long is parental leave?

There are programs, like a flexibility offering. 

And then there’s the third thing: practices. It’s that area we haven’t dug in enough. We want better leave or different flexibility; those things are critical. But the way your manager talks to you about your flexibility, the way in which you greet news of a pregnancy, that practice is really, really important. 

It’s how we treat each other. You can work for the best organization in the world. Maybe they give you a year of 100% paid leave, but if you walk into your manager’s office and say “I’m expecting” and they say “Oh” … if that’s the type of response you get, all of a sudden you wonder: How am i going to parent here? 

The good news is we can change a lot of those things really quickly. Organizations and managers should think carefully on how they help their people, how to set boundaries. Most of us are exhausted after these 18 months. As we move into fall, as you think I am going to have to ramp up into the fourth quarter, you want to say, “Here are the times we expect or want you to be focused on work stuff.”

You want direct conversations about job and non-job time.  When you send emails at offtimes, are you using subject lines like “needs your immediate attention” or “fyi” or “can wait till tomorrow?”

You don’t have to be on all the time. Let’s lower the cognitive load on each other. 

Mitra: What about what workers can do? 

DD: When I’m coaching the parent, a lot of the work I do is pushing people to really contract with themselves. When am I going to stop work and start work? What feels like a good reason to pivot my attention suddenly?

Each and every one of us needs to be intentional about this. One of the most important things as parents we need to do right now is think about our communications and how we’re going to talk about this through the fall. 

If your child’s school closes, how exactly are you going to be able to preview that? How can you let people know it occurred? What’s the script we can use?

Mitra: One of the things I am most self-conscious about is the constant nature of this juggle. It’s not like I need flexibility for one afternoon. Schools might close for two weeks. I need to help my teen with college applications, over the course of months. My mom gets sick so I head to the hospital but then there’s the aftermath: rehab or finding a home-health aide or researching assisted living. Am I supposed to communicate all of that, all the time? Won’t people think I am crazy? 

DD: I would encourage you to think about your communications at work as a spectrum. On a scale, “1” is you never mention it when you do the search for assisted living, and “10” is one of those people who never stops talking about parenting and all the caregiving, down to the brand of stroller they are buying. We all know people who fall at those extremes. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Most of us have not thought about where else we want to be on the spectrum. 

If you have no issues, let’s say you’ve been at about a two or three to date. Over the next couple of months, you may want to swing that up to a six or seven so people around you know, in real time, what you are grappling with so they can extend you some courtesy. 

Then you may want to go back to the two or three. Think about what’s going to work for you this fall. It’s a spectrum. 

With colleagues, you’re still going to be professional. Do you want nine out of 10 interactions with someone to be about caregiving? Probably not. 

The main thing is to give you a sense of control when it gets tough. So if you say “gee, it’s super uncomfortable for me right now,” you have to know that’s going to backfire to stay at a two. 

Mitra: A record number of people have started businesses in the pandemic, and I’m one of them. Does this advice apply to us too? A lot of days I try to take off or spend time with family are a failure because I feel everything and everyone is literally counting on me. Any advice? 

DD: I have a whole chapter in the book, “When you’re the boss,” for small business owners. There are a couple of things I can suggest. You have to really be careful about what your business plan is. Where are you spending your startup or self-employed time? Make sure you figure out ways to get backup or automation of some kind. Where you’re spending time, say doing business development, means you might not be spending time on fee-producing work. 

Some entrepreneurs find technology allows them to stay super organized and handle recordkeeping and other (time-intensive) tasks. A really important place to start is to ask: How are you running your life or how you running your business to make it parent friendly? 

Another thing I heard from a lot of people is to be realistic and conscientious around growth. There’s the classic entrepreneurial mindset of “I’ll do anything. I’ll work 18 hours a day. I’ll grow in a couple of years and sell.”

What I heard from a longtime, satisfied entrepreneur is to tap the brakes and slow the thing down. Think about clients or business models giving you steadier predictable income. Maybe you will be a niche player or small company. That flies in the face of what we are taught in business school but it allows people to have families while they are entrepreneurs. 

Mitra: Let’s talk about the fall. A lot of families across the country have gone back to school or are preparing to do so. How’s this gonna work with work? 

DD: I think there’s gonna be a lot of short-cycle changes and that’s even harder. 

The first thing I would recommend is something called “future anchoring.”  You want to create a positive picture of success, a very simple picture or vision. Maybe it’s career accolades. Maybe you always want to be the primary adult in your children’s lives. Maybe you say to yourself my goal is to get my kids as much as possible back to in-person school or into the habit of enjoying school routines or that by next June, my second-grader is enjoying reading. 

Think in a high-level way. As we go through these next several months, think of ways you can think about the whole picture. There’s the daily fire… I forgot my backpack, I have a positive COVID test… that stuff is jarring but I am seeing what I am working towards. I’m not going to let the other stuff rattle me. 

I know the idea of summoning grit and resilience this fall feels like a superhuman ask. It’s also important to feel you have a reservoir or dry powder from which to draw. I spend a lot of time talking about how to find a point of control. This is an activity or a place or a hobby you do or a physical space where you can access that thing pretty easily and you get to make all the decisions surrounding it. It brings out your best self and you are in control. It might be a spiritual practice or keeping your car in perfect working order. The world around me is chaotic but this spot is mine and in control, a small area in your life where you are on it. It can be incredibly reassuring and empowering. 

We also have the opportunity now to recast working parenthood and have it change its shape a little bit. We don’t have to go back to 2019. 

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