Working and parenting is a perpetual juggling act, and it’s perpetually frustrating. Many parents who clock-in often feel like they’ll never be good enough, neither in the office nor in the home.
Take it from this full-time employed mom of three. I forgot not one but two of my children’s parent-teacher conferences because I was on deadline. (I’ll never get over that #parentfail and my kids probably won’t either.)
The struggle to be the best employee and the best possible parent -- at the same time -- is an exhausting tug of war that many of us quietly wage. Guilt-ridden, tired and stressed-out, all we can do is our best. Or so the self-help saps say, as we try and fail to pin down that ever elusive work-life balance thing, whatever that is. Operative word: fail.
Day in, day out, we dash from hectic mornings at home to school drop-offs, then straight from the office to after-school activities, and back home again to cobble together some semblance of night-time nourishment. Our work is never done and there’s no clear-cut fix. Grin, bear it and be careful not to let on to your boss -- or your children -- that you’re struggling to “do it all.” Be a robot and leave your emotional baggage at home, where it “belongs.”
But, yes, everything’s fine. That is unless our parenting duties eclipse our work to-dos and doom our jobs, which would doom our ability to win bread to feed and house our kids. The pressure’s intense.
To perhaps help non-parental units build empathy for their co-workers who have children, and to help working parents see that they’re not alone, we put the kids out of our heads for a few working minutes and put together a list of five things employed moms and dads worry could cost them their jobs. At the very least, we hope you can relate and know that some of us are right there with you. We get it and we support you.
1. Driving your kids somewhere during work hours.
Oh, the places you’ll go when schlepping your kids to and fro -- daycare, school, the doctor’s, wherever -- sometimes even during work hours because you have no other choice. Unless you’re lucky enough to be the boss, or have a boss who understands that life sometimes happens at the least convenient times, you could risk looking like a unreliable, distracted worker.
Perhaps that’s when Uber-inspired ride services for parents and kids, such as HopSkipDrive, can come to the rescue -- if you’re willing to put your precious cargo in a car with a stranger. Closely coordinating with your parenting partner, if you have one, and with the emergency contacts you hope you can count on in a pinch also helps, if they come through.
2. Taking time off to care for your kids when they’re sick.
There’s no elixir like a mother or father’s comfort and love when you’re a kid under the weather. It can’t be replicated by a babysitter or even a grandparent. Despite our best laid plans (vegetables, vaccines, vitamins, etc.), Mother Nature often has other plans. Fevers spike. Rashes ooze. Lice crawl. Most schools and daycares don’t mess around with ick of that caliber. We’d like to think that most employers get that, but not all do. The fact is, at some point, your kids will get sick and they will need you to take time off from work to take time for them. It’s important.
If deadlines and meetings call anyway, and they will, working from home might help you remain in your boss’s favor while you help your little one get well. So says this workaholic mama who's held her feverish, flu-stricken tween daughter on her lap between upchucks while slogging away on articles, her warm laptop on the poor girl’s back. Don’t judge. There was also a time when I amended article edits by her hospital bed as she fell into anesthesia-induced unconsciousness before hernia surgery. Or that time I soldiered through a conference call while my son sneezed blood all over the walls during a doozie of an allergy attack-nosebleed combo. (I held my phone and held tissues over his nose, albeit ineffectively on both counts.)
I don’t want a medal of honor, a “Best Mom” badge or a “Most Devoted Worker” award for any of it. I was work-life tightrope-walking the best I could. Nothing more. I’m one of countless other working parents the world over who would do the same.
Should your littles get really, really sick, as in chronically ill, remember that the federal Family Medical Leave Act gives “certain employees” the right to take off up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. Hey, at least you get to keep your job.
3. Receiving calls and texts from your kids at work.
“Mom, I forgot my asthma inhaler at home. Can you bring it to me?” “Mom, the class bully called me a #$@! and I can’t go back to class and face him.” “Mom, I need $40 for a yearbook and today’s the last day to buy one.”
These are snippets of calls and texts that I’ve gotten from my kids while working. My typical response: “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I’m working right now. Unless it’s a true emergency, I can’t help. You have to figure this out and we’ll talk about this tonight.” Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s the best I can do when I have salaried work (the stuff that pays the bills) to accomplish.
If you’re not bleeding, throwing up or on fire, kid, don’t call me when I’m on the clock. Have there been times when I broke my own rule and indulged non-emergency kid-calls? Yes, but only on the rare occasion. For the most part, my kids respect my workday contact boundaries, even when they’re home for the summer. They don’t have a choice. I literally lock myself in my bedroom and work from there until the work is done. Thank goodness they’re old enough to take care of themselves for eight hours at a time now. It was a very different story when they couldn’t.
4. Attending your kids’ milestone events during work hours.
How’s this for a guilt-spiral in both directions? Your kid is graduating but, at the same time, you have a sale to close. Or a conference to emcee. Or a panel to moderate. You’re torn between two worlds and something has to give.
When it comes to your children’s graduations, school recitals and other milestone life events, Vice President Joe Biden says they should take precedence over work. “I do not expect, nor do I want, any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work,” he wrote in a memo to his staff that Esquire recently published. “...I will go so far as to say that if I find out that you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities it will disappoint me greatly.” If only all bosses shared his sentiments on work-life balance. Those who have a heart do, and I’m grateful to count my editors in this group. So are my children.
If your employer doesn’t grant you a hall pass to make an appearance at your kids’ milestone life events, it could be time to brave requesting a change to your company’s time-off policy or find another job. You don’t want your child looking out into the crowd from the stage for you and not see you looking back, beaming with pride. They’ll never forget feeling forgotten.
5. Worrying about your kids at work.
Knowing that your kid is running laps during P.E. without her asthma inhaler is scary. So is the thought of her taking a mental beating from a bully, not to mention the guilt that comes with not being able to help her until after the work day ends.
Emotional baggage. Parental worries. Whatever you call the mama and papa drama du jour, it’s definitely distracting. Putting your mind on your children and not on the work at hand saps your focus and your productivity. It’s a vicious cycle. Your work suffers because you are suffering because you can’t help your suffering kid. Your boss and co-workers notice you’re not pulling your weight and your worries multiply. Heap onto that hot mess the guilt you’re gripped with when you feel like you're failing not only your colleagues, but your kid, too.
Speaking of colleagues, Jason Fell, a coworker of mine who in the past telecommuted with two children at home for a spate, suggests that the answer is to diligently compartmentalize. “When you report for business, there’s no room to let your emotional baggage weigh you down,” he wrote in an Entrepreneur article, 4 Ways to Avoid Letting Emotional Baggage Weigh You Down at Work. "Don't ever think you can work from home and serve as a babysitter at the same time," he recently told me. He doesn’t mince words.