The working-parent pressures that benefits haven’t addressed

Balancing childcare and work is often a struggle for working parents.
Balancing childcare and work is often a struggle for working parents.
Image: Pixabay/alphalight1 via CC0 Public Domain
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If it feels like parental benefits have become the great HR issue of our time, there’s a good reason for this.

Parenting while working is a feat that often stretches employees to their limits, especially if they’re doing it on their own or with a partner who also has a career. And for the first time ever, companies are being run by people from a generation that broadly understands this, even if many leaders haven’t personally experienced the pressure themselves.

More companies are offering at least 12 weeks paid leave for new mothers, a paid-leave policy for new fathers, and a room where nursing moms can pump in private. Some even have an option to come back from parental leave on a reduced schedule that gradually increases, or help cover the cost of fertility treatments, adoption, or even a child’s college tuition.

Yes, paid leave and parental benefits are still available to just a narrow slice of the world’s working population. But as someone who became a parent before seemingly anyone was thinking about paternity leave or shipped breast milk, I still marvel at how quickly the bar has been raised on benefits for new moms and dads.

The thing is, there are a lot of working-parent worries that today’s policies don’t address. So if you plan to start a family or want a work culture that’s truly supportive to parents, here are five things to keep in mind.

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There’s no standard way of finding (or structuring) childcare arrangements

Maybe you’re lucky and you have an in-law who lives nearby and wants to babysit the grandkids all day, every day; or a reputable daycare center near home or work that has a slot available for your offspring; or a Facebook connection who knows of a family that’s giving up their nanny now that the children are older.

How you find suitable childcare is generally up to you—and for many parents, it’s a pain point. Kind employers might find ways to help employees with the search, and will recognize that every parent’s care situation is different. Meeting start times that work for one parent might not work for another, and work-from-home policies that sound helpful to someone who lives near their children’s daycare center might hold no appeal to someone with a nanny at home and no room they can keep fully childproofed during work hours.

Further reading from Quartz at Work:

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Separation anxiety—for parents, not just kids—is real

Employers can do a lot before, during, and after the leave period to make it easier for people to come back to work. But none of this necessarily makes it easier for people to say goodbye to their kids when the office beckons.

While not traumatic for everyone, for some, the thought of being away from the tiny human who suddenly plays such a big role in their life can generate feelings of dread, guilt, or just simple sadness. When I was preparing to go back to work after months at home with my daughter, I felt ready, a bit desperate even, to focus on my career again. But I still found myself entertaining wild fantasies in which my employer would call to say there’d been budget cuts and my services were no longer needed.

Parents who are as fortunate as I was will find that the buildup can be worse than the reality. After many sleepless nights (expected because I had an infant, but exacerbated greatly by my nerves) it was finally go-time. After panicking all morning and letting the tears flow as I headed to the office, I sat down at my desk and started to work and felt … totally fine.

Every parent handles the transition in their own way, on their own timetable. While there’s no workplace policy prescription that can make it less difficult to kiss a baby goodbye when the workday begins, managers and colleagues might gently lend support with a simple “how are you” at various points in the adjustment period.

Further reading from Quartz at Work:

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Families outgrow most perks quickly

Subsidized IVF, paid leave, lactation consultants, even on-site daycare—at some point, those perks will no longer directly apply to you (though you still might appreciate working at the type of place that offers them).

I still have trouble articulating what, specifically, employees should be lobbying for in terms of benefits that will be most helpful to parents once they stop making, adopting, or nursing babies (I’m Gen-X; we weren’t raised to lobby our employers for anything). But as the mom of a middle schooler, I can attest that the needs of working parents change as their children grow.

A handful of employers offer benefits that kick in after the newborn stage, such as family coaching, on-site summer camp, and assistance with college tuition. But none of these perks directly address the seemingly nightly chaos that arises when you’re juggling school schedules, sitters’ schedules, homework, baths, and dinner, ideally all wrapped up without anyone, kid or adult, having to stay up past their bedtime.

Millennials: You’re better than any generation before you at getting employers to recognize your needs. I have faith that as you graduate from new parenthood to plain-old parenthood, you’ll figure out what parental benefits to ask for next.

Further reading from Quartz at Work:

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Parenthood can reinforce unhealthy gender biases

Did you hear the one about the manager who passed over a new mother for a well-deserved promotion because he presumed she wouldn’t want to do all the traveling the new job required?

Our social conditioning about gender can have a powerful influence over our career paths—from the professions we pursue, to the way we’re treated by others at work, to how we prioritize our own ambitions versus those of a partner. Even the most enlightened among us risk inadvertently reinforcing traditional gender roles and biases. This can happen at any time, of course, but we’re especially prone when a baby arrives on the scene.

Employers can do their part to help even things out. Managers should ask, rather than presume, how someone feels about taking on more travel or more responsibility. If paternity leave is available, men should be encouraged to take it.

But even well-meaning work policies meant to help parents can exacerbate gender inequality. For instance, longer maternity leaves, or shared parental leaves in which mothers take the bulk of the benefit, have been correlated with negative career outcomes for women, as their commitment to work and their suitability for promotions comes under greater scrutiny.

Further reading from Quartz at Work:

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Future generations will be better at this

My husband and I had no models for how to run a two-parent household where both parents work full-time. My mother-in-law stayed home with her kids; when my own mother went back to work after taking several years off to raise me and my sister, it was in roles that allowed her to be home by 4 pm. As kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s, not only were we not regularly sent to daycare or put in the care of a full-time nanny, we didn’t really know anyone who was.

We never watched our parents negotiate who’d pick up the kids tonight or who’d be in charge of the takeout. We barely ate takeout anyway, because our mothers almost always had time to put a home-cooked dinner on the table for us. Not surprisingly, we encountered a lot of frustration in trying to smoothly operate our own two-income household, and made tons of mistakes trying to solve for it. On the most trying days, I would throw up my hands and beg the universe to make things easier for parents by the time our daughter was old enough to be one.

The good news is, it will be easier. To my daughter, the idea of leaving a baby in someone else’s care will not be strange. Should she have someone to parent with, there’s a good chance (or at least a better chance than there was for me and my husband) that this person will be familiar with the negotiating that must be done when there’s more than one parent who works full-time.

Maybe you don’t have kids yet, don’t ever plan to, or had yours too early to take advantage of the increasingly generous perks that companies are showering on new parents these days. This doesn’t mean that benefits won’t accrue to you, too. When employers contribute to the well-being of working parents, they bring all of us that much closer to having a society with healthy parents, healthy children, and a healthy future.

Further reading from Quartz at Work: