HR Asia

SUPPORTING WORKING PARENTS AS CHILDREN GROW UP

- By Danna Greenberg and Jamie J. Ladge

With a record number of women running for president in the US, it’s no surprise that the concerns of working parents are on the 2020 agenda. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a plan for universal childcare, Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor of the Child Care for Working Families Act, and several other candidates have voiced support for similar policies.

The prominence of these issues on the campaign trail reflects a growing awareness about the needs of working parents in the US, particular­ly working mothers. We’re having more open and honest conversati­ons about topics like maternity leave, return to work, and pregnancy and breastfeed­ing in the office.

Yet much of our public discussion around working parents focuses on the needs of new mothers, as if the challenges of integratin­g work and parenthood evaporate once a child enters school (not to mention that working fathers are often ignored completely). In reality, as children get older, working parents experience new joys and stresses. Without effective supports, later-stage working parents are just as vulnerable as new parents to feeling pulled between career and family.

In our research and interviews with hundreds of working mothers, as well as our own experience­s navigating work and parenthood, we’ve learned that motherhood isn’t a linear, uniform path. Just when you think you have it figured out, your family or your career shifts and you have to create new work/family patterns. As we argue in our new book, Maternal Optimism, it’s time for working parents and organizati­ons to look beyond pregnancy, birth, and infancy to address how work-family demands shift as children grow up and careers mature.

THE EVOLVING COMPLEXITI­ES OF CHILDCARE

After pregnancy and return to work, the next major upheaval for most working parents happens when their child enters school and the childcare arrangemen­ts they have come to rely on are suddenly upended. The American education system hardly qualifies as full-time care. The average school is closed for 29 days during the 10 months a year when it is officially “in session.” These days off, along with summer vacations and the perpetual misalignme­nt between the school day and the work

day, all create gaps in childcare.

We’ve found that these “care gaps” are often more difficult for working parents to navigate than obtaining full-time care for younger children. Many working mothers have reported feeling blindsided by the challenge of securing and paying for quality care for school-age children. One mother we interviewe­d was astonished to find her childcare costs did not diminish significan­tly when her daughter transition­ed to kindergart­en and, as a result, she and her partner had to reorient their family budget.

Children continue to need care even as they transition to middle and high school and become more independen­t. Yet there are far fewer after-school programs and care options available for tweens and teens. While high schoolers require less supervisio­n, they often lead busier lives and need to be shuttled between activities, after-school jobs, and social engagement­s. Research shows that, as with other childcare tasks, these responsibi­lities continue to fall primarily on mothers rather than fathers. While care for teens is less physically demanding and time intensive, it often requires more emotional labour as children develop their own identities and navigate complex social and emotional issues.

Unfortunat­ely, bosses and colleagues who may have been accommodat­ing of a new mother’s need to pump breast milk or take maternity leave are often less aware or accepting of the demands a working mother faces as her children get older. At the same time, job responsibi­lities are increasing as parents move ahead in their careers. Sometimes the choices women make about work and family can feel more difficult because of the invisibili­ty of mothering older children.

For instance, a technical sales consultant we interviewe­d was conflicted when offered a promotion that would require significan­t travel. She was hesitant to accept the role because her youngest son was in his final years of high school. When her children were younger, her managers would actively help her think through work and family integratio­n as she considered new opportunit­ies. However, this time it was as if everyone seemed to forget she was a mother, and she worried she couldn’t be transparen­t about her concerns. She ultimately turned down the promotion.

THE UPSIDE OF PARENTING OLDER CHILDREN

Of course, it’s not all bad news as children get older. The parents we’ve interviewe­d have said that while the demands of work and family don’t diminish, they become better equipped at integratin­g the two and more forgiving of their missteps. They become skilled multitaske­rs and time managers, laser-focused on what has to get done both at work and at home. They also begin to realize the many ways in which their roles as employees and parents are mutually beneficial. Ruth Bader Ginsburg attributes her success in law school in large part to being a parent, writing, “Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

Expectatio­ns also evolve as children grow older. Numerous women have told us that they begin to feel more comfortabl­e and confident in their identities as working mothers. The anxiety about being a “perfect mom” as well as a star performer at work dissipates as they discover the work-family harmony that is right for them. The feedback from their children also becomes more positive: rather than asking why a parent works, teenagers often express pride and interest in their parent’s job. Working mothers start to realize what research has already shown — that their careers have an overwhelmi­ngly positive influence on their children in the long run.

HOW TO RIDE THE TRANSITION­S

What can parents do to prepare for the transition­s that will inevitably arise as their children grow older? How can they manage the new challenges while also reaping the benefits?

First, families should anticipate (and budget for) new childcare arrangemen­ts when their children enter school; they may need to secure after-school and summer care months in advance. There will be unanticipa­ted care gaps due to snow days, early release, and unexpected meetings, so parents should prepare one or two alternativ­e care options as backup. As children get older, parents should consider creative arrangemen­ts. A teen may need a driver or a tutor more than someone to supervise them. Most importantl­y, instead of thinking of childcare as a cost, consider it an investment in both your career and your child’s well being.

We also encourage working parents to cultivate networks of support, just as they develop profession­al networks to advance their careers. Research shows that community support leads to less stress and higher job quality for working mothers. When deciding where to live and work, parents often focus on high-ranking schools but overlook other community assets like after-school programs or fellow working parents who can share carpool duties or childcare on snow days. It’s also important to develop allies in the office who support your efforts to integrate work and caregiving. And as managers and colleagues, we should be more aware that parental obligation­s don’t end once children are in school.

As for employers, it’s essential that they expand policies and practices to support working parents with children of all ages. Generous parental leave after birth is a start, but parents also need flexibilit­y to attend a teenager’s a cappella performanc­e or step out of a meeting to problem solve a school pick-up. Parents of teens with special needs will require even more flexibilit­y to meet with teachers and therapists and advocate for their child. Supporting employees’ family needs helps them thrive at work, which ultimately reduces turnover, absenteeis­m, and increases productivi­ty.

Some organizati­ons have become more creative in supporting parents with older children. Biotechnol­ogy company Genentech has partnered with an organizati­on that helps employees find high-quality programs for their children when school is not in session. Johnson & Johnson provides financial assistance for the speech, occupation­al, mental health, and physical therapy needs of employees’ children.

Our research has consistent­ly found that parenthood is a continuall­y evolving path and each parent’s experience­s and needs are unique. Being a parent doesn’t end, it just changes form. By acknowledg­ing this and providing appropriat­e supports to parents throughout their children’s lives, we can create better workplaces, stronger families, and healthier communitie­s.

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