Being ‘Always On’ Has Reached Its Limits. For Parents, It’s Time to Reset

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Did anything surprise you about the way working parents reacted to the upheaval of the pandemic?

I was struck by how incredibly hard people held on to their past work habits, and to professional and personal identities that no longer held true in a crisis situation. People would say, especially in the beginning, “I feel really unprofessional when a child walks into my Zoom background. How do I handle that?” I would say, “Well, we’re in a wartime experience here!” It was a surprise to me that even under the worst possible circumstances, each and every one of us was holding on tight — in a really well-intentioned way — to a set of habits and identities that needed to change.

That’s important as we think about pivoting to the future. People need to think as expansively as possible about what’s going to work — as opposed to thinking, “Well, this is how I used to do it in 2019” or “This is what my boss expects.”

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A lot of bosses are juggling work and family life as well. How can people telegraph support at the managerial level for issues they understand on a personal level?

Sometimes it’s as simple as including references to working parenthood in town halls, blast emails, team meetings — just normalizing what’s going on. Nonverbal symbols can be powerful too: When I talk to senior executives on Zoom who ask how they can be supportive of working parents, I’m scanning their background for some visual cue that says “I’ve got a life outside the office” or “I’m dealing with caregiving too” — a photo, a kid’s toy, whatever. Organizations also need to think about sponsoring working parent networks or resource groups.

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The strains on working parents go far beyond any single family or organization — these issues are systemic. The Biden administration has proposed a $1.8 trillion economic package that includes paid federal leave, universal kindergarten and child care subsidies. How should working parents think about these potential structural changes?

I’m super excited about the potential for a lot of the proposed legislation; but let’s make that legislation a lived change and not just a legal change.

On an individual basis, we all need to start bringing forward what we want and who we are, and planting that into the conversation. Something like national paid leave that’s available to everyone is a clear working parent win, but if you come back from your leave — however long and well-paid it is — and feel like you have no working parent mentors, and you don’t feel you have permission to talk about work-life issues with your manager or other senior people, and you’re working 18 hours a day and you don’t see any flexibility, we’re not going to make this the movement it can and should be.

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