Today is my last day on parental leave and I’m sitting in a cafe with a pool of vomit on my shoulder. You see, I was late getting the baby out the door because he woke up early, which threw off his morning nap, which rushed his bottle, which = spit up. I was so focused on getting him to daycare (I didn’t want him to miss circle time!), that I forgot to change my shirt.
He missed circle time anyway, and I smell like curdled cheese.
This has been the joyful and ridiculous rhythm of my life for the last few months while I’ve been caring for my newborn. The experience has been profoundly life changing. I love this little person so much. He’s sweet and smiley, quiet and watchful. He just started to giggle. I mean, wow.
It has also been challenging. Before my parental leave, I respected people who care for others, but now I value this work at a much deeper, more personal, level. Caregiving is emotionally, physically, and spiritually demanding work. It requires creativity, flexibility, and persistence.
My wife, Tracy, and I were fortunate to have 12 weeks of leave together, and we shared the work equally. It made the burden on each of us reasonable. We got enough sleep to function and support each other on the hard days. The house didn’t descend into chaos, and we had some decent meals.
Most importantly, we had time to get to know our baby and adjust to the work of caring for another human.
Unfortunately, our capitalist, patriarchal society doesn’t value care work. I am more privileged than most to work for a company that has 16 weeks of paid leave. In the US, only 11% of workers have access to paid parental leave, while 60% have access to unpaid leave. Leave policies favor higher-income workers, leaving lower-income workers more likely to fall into poverty because of a birth.
Caring for the children and parents of others, meanwhile, is low-wage or no-wage work done primarily by women, often by women of color, often without basic protections like sick days and health insurance.
If we want our families and communities to thrive, justice for caregivers is a must. We need fair wages for workers, paid leave for all parents, and a new paradigm that sees caring work as vital and valuable.
A first step might be to intentionally lift up caregivers as a model.
Many of the skills that I relied on during my parental leave—experimentation, agility, and navigating uncertainty—are the same skills my consulting firm helps our clients to develop. For caregivers, 21st century skills like failing fast, experimenting, and working iteratively aren’t conceptual, they’re essential.
So when executives talk about the importance of a new kind of workforce for the future, I say look no further than a mother, father, grandparent, or caregiver of an elder and ask them what they’ve learned. Ask them how they get through the day.
I’m just at the beginning of my journey as a caregiver, but I’m already changed. If a client or colleague asked me what I’d learned from parenting that would help me at work, here’s a few things I would share:
1. Parents know how to experiment relentlessly. And accept failure
I can’t count the number of times I’ve failed as a parent. I’ve never failed so much in my life. Failure to get the baby to sleep. Failure to wake the baby up. Failure to get the baby to eat. Failure to keep the baby cool. Failure to cook dinner. Failure to shower. Failure to change my vomit-covered shirt. Failure to keep calm. You get the idea.
Sure, I’ve failed at things before. But in my other experiences of failure, the feedback was ambiguous or ignorable. Responsibility could be shared with others. Consequences weren’t immediate. I understood the concepts of “fail fast” and “failure is learning,” but didn’t really feel it in my bones.
With this baby, the impact of my failure was obvious. The feedback loop about my choices was immediate and palpable.
I could hear my failure in his cries. I could smell my failure on my shirt. I could feel my failure in my body—literally. When we couldn’t get him to sleep anywhere but in our arms, I was so knotted and sore from cradling the baby in awkward positions that I could barely function.
So we experimented. When he cried, I tried a dozen different holds. When he wouldn’t sleep, I rocked, shushed, walked, bounced, and swaddled. When he didn’t want to be put down, my wife and I tried a bouncer, a bassinet, a play mat, and three carriers. When he was sleeping through feedings, we tried different routines. Eat sleep play. Eat play sleep. Sleep play eat. Finally, the three of us got into a rhythm that worked—for the moment at least.
What strikes me as important about all this, though, is that all the failure didn’t get me down, it made me more determined to experiment with different fixes. I accepted the failure and moved on – something I’m not very good at in other parts of my life. I usually take failure very hard. This time, I let go.
Why? As a parent, I’m driven by a deep love for this human and recognition of his tremendous need for me. Quitting isn’t an option. I’ve never experienced that before – giving up has always been (at least tacitly) a possibility. But here, the only option is to keep going. What a tremendous motivator.
When I return to work, I’ll be keeping my eye on those two things: Love and need. How can I practice unconditional love and use love to connect to deep purpose? Where can I recognize essential needs and meet them? How can this help me cultivate the strength to persist in the face of harsh feedback, when all I want to do is quit?
I’ll let you know how it goes.
2. Parents learn to expect change, but don’t try to anticipate it
The funny thing about having a baby is that as soon as you get great at having a 1 month old, suddenly you have a 2 month old. As soon as you get good at having a baby, you’ve got a toddler on your hands. There’s no time to rest on your laurels. As soon as you’re celebrating, you’re back to the drawing board.
Sure, you can prepare for the changes in small ways. For example, around 4 months you have to stop swaddling babies because they can roll over. To prepare for this (my baby is 3.5 months) I read a few blog posts and borrowed some transitional swaddles from a neighbor. What I deliberately avoided was going down the internet research rabbit hole and spending $200 on gear. What’s the point? My baby might not care about being unswaddled—he may do fine cold turkey. Or it’ll be a battle and we’ll have to gear up and read up. No amount of speculation and preparation will change the fact that we simply won’t know until we get there.
We weren’t as good at this in the beginning. We got excited about a bassinet that got rave internet reviews—swivel top, mesh sides, adjustable heights, the works—but the baby refused to sleep in it, though we tried night after night after night. This thing was expensive! He had to like it! Nope. He adored a $42 sleeper with a reclined back. After a few painful weeks, we let go of the bassinet and all slept like champs. It was hard to let go of the bassinet – that thing was expensive and fancy.
I see this is an allegory for organizational life. We often over-invest in structures, systems, tools, training, and plans to prepare for a future that we can’t actually predict. It makes us feel secure (we need the best bassinet and all the swaddles), but in reality, it has perverse consequences. We get stuck on the wrong thing because we’ve put so much time on it. In doing so, we miss the actual need right in front of us.
In times of stress, we get stuck taking familiar actions because they are comfortable and predictable. We announce a new strategic plan, roll out a new change program. There’s a launch, an external consultant, meetings, trainings, a new slogan, tool kits. But does it work? Rarely, in my experience. People do it because they know how and it reduces stress to do something, even if no one expects it to work. It’s an action orientation, as opposed to a results one.
We can’t control what happens in the future. The most we can do is minimum viable preparation (inexpensive, low time investment). Then, observe, diagnose, act, and iterate.
I’m proud to say Tracy and I are getting pretty good at this as parents – we’ve had to.
This is hard for the perfectionist in me. I love to over-prepare. But if I’ve learned one thing from parenting it’s that trying to control things is futile. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it think it’s going to save me a lot of time when I get back to work.
3. Parents know that crying is a signal that change is coming
About six weeks after the baby was born, I noticed a pattern in his crying that dramatically shifted the way I approached parenting. It was mid-afternoon and I was trying to put the baby down for a nap. He was overtired and cranky. I’d been at it for 20 minutes, rocking and shushing him. I tried everything in my bag of tricks. Instead of calming down, he was cranking up, thrashing in his swaddle, arching his back, and, worst of all, he was crying. Hard.
I was frustrated and upset, worried I was doing something wrong. His crying only seemed to be getting worse, more desperate. Just as I was about to throw in the towel, his body suddenly calmed, his crying stopped, and he settled into a peaceful sleep. When I thought back over the past week, he’d done this over and over. He’d cried hard before a each nap, no matter the situation, with the worst crying happening right before he transitioned to sleep.
I realized I had been thinking about his crying all wrong. I’d been telling myself that his cries meant “I hate this, please stop. I don’t want to nap!” That day, I understood that his cries meant “I’m so tired and ready to sleep, but I don’t know how to get there. I need your help to get through the transition so I can rest.” In that moment, I understood that I had to let go of my wish that my baby would fall asleep peacefully, and embrace the reality that crying was an important signal that he was trying to change from one state to another.
This is a fascinating moment of me misinterpreting his feedback. His crying wasn’t a sign I was doing something wrong, it was a sign of something right. I just had to withstand the delay. Crying was a right of passage for him, a precondition for change. Discomfort and resistance are a part of transition for him, as it is for many of us. The only way to get from tears to sleep was to stick with the discomfort. I couldn’t move around it, I had to move through it.
This had resonance in other areas of my life, far beyond my newborn. I thought back to all the times I’d backed away from difficult transitions because I couldn’t stand the “crying”. If only I’d better understood that discomfort (and sometimes actual crying) is a signal that change is coming. When I was able to see his crying differently, I found a well of strength within me to draw on in the tough moments. What had felt like enduring something awful became an opportunity to persist with purpose and emerge in a new, better state, together.
Parents know that tears are part of the bargain sometimes. They may not be pleasant, but they just might be necessary.
When I return to work, I’ll be trying to staying present in the moments that feel like the adult version of crying. I’m going to draw on the strength I’ve cultivated through parenting to stay patient and caring when I and others are suffering, and recognize that sometimes, that means we’re on our way to a better place.
Caregiving is the future of work
When I imagine the future of work, I see caregivers held up as a model of the kind of workers our world needs in order to thrive. I see caregivers recognized as valuable and paid fair wages for their work. I see parents with paid leave who are welcomed back into a workforce that sees their experiences as an asset, not a liability.
When I image the future of work, I see workspaces that recognize that many parents and caregivers already have the problem solving skills that organizations are desperate to train them in. In fact, many of us already navigate uncertainty, experiment, and respond to change in other areas of our life. But the way we’ve been expected to work in organizations for the last 100 years has ignored or marginalized these problem-solving strategies that have been a part of human families and communities for millennia.
We have to recognize the ancient wisdom of parents and caregivers and find space in our professional lives to draw on their skills.
Here’s the thing: Being a caregiver is a feature, not a bug. Let’s honor that. Frankly, we can’t afford not to.
Karina Mangu-Ward is director of org design at August, a firm that builds high performing teams for the 21st century.