The guilt new parents are made to feel in workaholic corporate and national cultures is astonishing. As is the gratitude for the most basic management of an almost universal human reality — that the vast majority of people have children. While you may not be able to fix the whole system, you can nudge it forward by focusing on three things when you return to work after having a baby: your sense of self, your boss, and your corporate culture. Strategically managing all three will not only make your own journey a lot easier, you’ll also contribute to adapting your company to twenty-first century realities.
“I’m so grateful about the bank’s return-to-work program for mothers,” enthused a woman at said bank’s women’s conference I was speaking at recently. “Why are you grateful?” I asked. She looked bemused by my question. “Isn’t your company saving money by getting a skilled employee back rather than having to recruit and train a new one?” I responded. “Won’t they be able to serve you up as a role model to a generation of talented parents-to-be coming along behind you?”
Most new parents don’t see themselves in this positive light, especially in the U.S. Instead, they feel guilt. Guilt and gratitude for the most basic management of a simple human reality — people having children.
While you may not be able to fix the system you’re in, you can nudge it forward by making a concerted effort to focus on three things when you return to work: your sense of self, your boss, and your corporate culture. Strategically managing all three will not only make your own journey a lot easier, you’ll also contribute to adapting your company to twenty-first century realities.
Build your sense of self by aligning with your partner
There’s no denying that leaving the workplace for anything from a few weeks to a few years can give your sense of self a hit. In addition to not sleeping through the night, and the steep learning curve of suddenly adjusting to being responsible for a fragile and helpless human, new parents inevitably feel that they are out of the loop at work. They often feel out of the loop of life, period.
The more intensive and fast-paced the workplace culture, the more people feel they are speeding backwards towards irrelevance. Don’t let yourself believe this. There are many roads to developing a career. If you have a partner, aligning your goals with them is the first essential step.
Dual-career couples need to craft a plan for an over-arching, shared life vision, of which two mutually enhancing career plans are a part. If you stick to trying to manage two independent career tracks you risk ending up competing rather than collaborating. That’s a guaranteed confidence killer. It’s also not great for your relationship.
There are three chapters to the conversations you need to have with your partner:
- Parenting: What kind of parents do you each want to be? Primary, secondary, shared? This may seem obvious, but too many couples make assumptions based on their cultures, their parents, or their social circles. Make it explicit. Your future depends on it. Don’t suddenly discover, as a mentee of mine did, that her surgeon husband’s idea of co-parenting was the occasional Sunday afternoon in the park.
- Careers: What kind of career do you each aim for? What are the short, medium, and long-term goals? What are the career patterns of the next decade in each existing career? Pace yourself — and your partner — for the long haul. Well designed, you can both have it all — but maybe not both at the same time, or not all at once.
- Caring: What’s your support network look like? Who will back you up and who will manage them? What’s plan B and C? Can you rely on family, on out-sourcing, or on friends? It takes a village, remember. Don’t even think you’ll survive this phase without help. Ask for it, plan for it, design it in. Then co-manage it.
The mistake too many returning parents make is a mixture of perfectionism and impatience. They want to do too much and be perfect in all dimensions — a perfect professional, a perfect parent, a perfect partner. This leads to almost guaranteed burn out. Forget perfect. Relax, breathe deeply, and prepare for a marathon, not a sprint.
Communicate with your boss and lobby for what you need
Once you’ve got your plan and your pacing down with your partner, it’s time to start building a communications plan for your boss.
If you’re in a male-dominated organization, most bosses are not yet totally comfortable managing conversations about balancing babies and ambitions with the growing number of smart, young women coming up their pipelines. And even less with the growing number of men who want to be involved fathers, especially if they themselves “sacrificed” (usually their word) their personal lives to their careers. Aside from a limited number of progressive workplaces, the onus falls on you to manage the process.
You and Your Team Series
Some managers will well-meaningly make assumptions about returning parents, trying to spare them from challenging assignments. Others will, on the contrary, want to test whether you’re still “ambitious” and offer you a promotion in … China. In either case, you’ll need to manage up and lobby clearly for the roles or promotions you are expecting — or the limits you are setting. Don’t expect your boss to understand your inner thoughts or resolve the inevitable conflicts. Pitch a pace, a plan, and a solution. Then check in regularly.
And remember: whatever your manager’s response, forget gratitude. If you’re a woman, keep in mind that women are almost 60% of university graduates, and at least half the incoming talent pool in most companies. You’re the future, help your bosses learn how to manage you better. If you’re a man, know that you’re a necessary role model to leveling the playing field for both men and women. Educate older men in the changing perspectives of the next generation and the flexibility that technology is opening up for everyone.
Understand the corporate culture you’re in and pace yourself
The systems and cultures of firms today still assume that 24/7, up-or-out, linear careers are the default setting. That is the norm. Everything else, including the 86% of women between 40 and 44 who will have had children, is a deviation, that companies are grudgingly catering to. Not to mention the majority of men who now live in dual-earner couples, and are finding it particularly awkward to report to men of the previous generation who are wondering what kind of men want to look after children?
Some companies have great policies, but managers who aren’t very open to applying them. Make sure you know what the corporate rules of the game are in your company. If they’re unclear, reach out to other colleagues with kids.
The policies are often in place, but behaviors lag a generation behind. Two-thirds of men would take parental leave if they thought it wouldn’t negatively impact their career. But times are changing fast. Both men and women need to be part of the change we all want to see.
So enlist your partner, sign up your boss, and put on your marathoner’s shoes. Kiss your beautiful baby goodbye at daycare drop-off (they’ll be just fine) and enjoy the extraordinary satisfactions of mindfully choosing to manage your family and your career.
Powered by WPeMatico