Rebooting the workparent operating system

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Contributed by Daisy Dowling, an executive coach and full-time working parent to two young children who helps working parents lead more successful and satisfying lives. She is the author of WORKPARENT: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids. We asked Daisy about the challenges “parentrepreneurs” face. Here’s what she shared:

Why should working parents think of themselves as a “workparent?” 

For many years, the language I heard describing the challenge of working-and-caregiving bugged me. Terms like “balance” and “integration” seemed so high-level and euphemistic. The phrase “work/life” implied that work was somehow supposed to be completely distinct and separate from the rest of our lives and selves, which it isn’t. And while I’m very proud of being a working mother, that label felt a little tilted (after all, no one ever refers to “working dads”). 

We need a single, simple, inclusive term for ourselves as people combining careers and kids. Anyone can be a workparent, regardless of gender, family structure or type of work. The term captures the beautiful, complex reality that each one of us is living day-to-day, as a whole, complete individual doing two distinct but essential roles.  

The working parent conversation tends to focus on mothers, especially new moms. But you argue that we should include dads, adoptive parents and parents of older children in discussions about the struggles of working parenthood. Why? 

As an executive coach, it’s my privilege to serve individuals who want to build successful careers and to fit those careers into the frame of their overall lives. So many recent moms struggle with those things―but men and parents of older kids struggle, too. Why not be honest about that―and more inclusive? The dad I counseled yesterday, who’s struggling to lead his team at work while keeping his teenage kids safe and on-track after more than a year of virtual schooling deserves just as much respect and support as a mom facing that daunting first day back from leave. There are 50+ million American working parents; we come in all different packages, and we all can be part of the working parent conversation.  

All working parents face challenges. But parents who also happen to be entrepreneurs face unique realities. What are some of the upsides of entrepreneurial working parenthood? And some of the biggest challenges?  

One of my self-employed, very entrepreneurial workparent clients captured the issue brilliantly when she said, “I can take time off whenever I want―as long as my boss lets me.” In other words, when you work for yourself, you’re the decisionmaker, and that’s great because you’re not beholden to corporate policies. On the other hand, you’re serving your clients and yourself. That can make it even harder to say “no,” dial things back, or set the boundaries and limits that many working parents want and need. Are you going to take those extra billable hours or prioritize family dinner? Constantly facing that type of decision is tough, and can lead to guilt and self-doubt―fast.

When coaching entrepreneurial parents, I often ask them to set a specific, personal contract―with items like, “I will commit myself to X amount of family time each day”, “I will take off four weeks per year” or “I won’t travel for new client business if I can pitch over Zoom.” With those decisions made and guardrails in place, it frees up significant mental and emotional energy. You’re not constantly negotiating with yourself, and you can be confident of remaining the parent and professional you want to be.

Many workparents hide their struggles at work, out of fear that sharing them will make them look unprofessional. But you advise your clients to own their status as working parents and to be open about their challenges. Why? 

Most of us are still playing by 2019-and-prior rules. By that, I mean that we often operate as if sharing anything about our parenting responsibilities while on the job will show us as less committed, less hardworking or even unprofessional. Those concerns are natural, and I share them myself. But when we let those concerns drive our behavior, it doesn’t serve us very well as individuals or as a broader group. 

Let’s say you duck out for a pediatrician’s appointment but say nothing about. Your colleagues or boss are left wondering, “Where is she?” Without knowing why you’re gone, they’ll fill in with their own assumptions―which may not be positive ones. That could hurt your professional brand. Sharing the fact that you’re ducking out for a family obligation can put you in a better professional light. And, if every parent within your organization mentioned their parenting needs, at least occasionally, it would help normalize working parenthood, and reduce our root concerns. 

If all this sound risky, or impossible, ask yourself: When my own kids are working parents, do I want them to be dealing with the same anxiety I am today? We owe it to our children, and to all future working moms and dads, to make things easier than they’ve been for us.  

At a time when working parenthood feels tremendously dire, you are notably optimistic about the future of working parenthood. Why? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been horrible; I hope none of us ever has to go through a similar situation again. At the same time, this crisis let the genie out of the bottle. As individuals, as organizations, and as a society it forced us to take a good, hard, honest look at all the challenges working parents face. When toddlers wandered into the foreground of Zoom calls, we had to. 

Most of my coachees are taking a more intentional approach as they combine career and kids, asking themselves, “Do I really want to be in this job? What kind of boundaries do I want to set so I can really be there for my family?” Managers and organizations are asking themselves questions too―about how to support parents, and hang onto that critical talent. We’re rebooting the workparent operating system, and heading towards what I call Working Parenthood 2.0

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