The Secret Trick to Surviving the Workplace As A Parent
A long time ago, when I was back at work after having my first baby, I read that you shouldn’t keep a photo of your children in your office. “You wouldn’t have a picture of your office in your house, so why would you have a picture of your kids at work – keep them separate!” was the advice.
Well, of course you wouldn’t have a picture of your office at home – that would be weird, and slightly depressing. But mostly weird.
On the other hand, picking a gorgeous picture of the people you’d literally die for and putting it on your desk – that seems to me quite a normal and nice thing to do. It’s not for everyone of course, but I did it. And when a second baby came along, I replaced the picture and the same when the third arrived. And on those days when work was particularly tough, glancing over at the picture of three smiling kids made me feel instantly better.
Having said that, I didn’t want to give the impression to my colleagues or boss that I was sitting there staring into space (or at the photo) wishing I was at home. I made a conscious decision not to start every conversation with a rundown of how the kids slept last night, or how tired I was. Not only would it be incredibly boring for everyone else, it felt like a step too far in the melding of work and home.
A brief answer to “How are the kids?” during pre-meeting small talk was fine, but long conversations about napping and nappies and the funny thing someone did last night were off the agenda. The very last thing I wanted to do was give the impression that my mind was somewhere else, which in turn could suggest that I was less than capable at doing my job.
And I was lucky. I worked for and with good people, who didn’t view me any differently for having taken maternity leave three times in five years or eventually moving to a four-day week or leaving the office at 4pm each day.
But that last one can be particularly tough - leaving the office early for crèche pick-up when everyone else is still working. My view on it was always that you should hold your head up high; if you’ve done your work and your exit time has been agreed with your boss, then there’s no need to feel guilty. It does help to explain to colleagues at the beginning that that’s what you’ll be doing, rather than sneaking out as though you’re not supposed to be leaving early.
And if you’re logging in at night, don’t be shy about it. Nobody likes the person who insists on copying everyone on their night-time and weekend emails – screaming “Look how hardworking I am!” – but every now and then, it’s no harm if your boss is aware of the extra effort you’re putting in.
Similarly, during meetings, focus on goals met and results achieved – it’s not about the hours you do or don’t spend in the office, but doing your job to a high standard, regardless of time or location.
What is most helpful though, in my experience, is to have a network of like-minded colleagues – work friends who are also parents. Your working parent tribe. They’re the go-to people when you really do need to tell someone you were up all night with a teething baby – they’re the ones who’ll turn up with a coffee at your desk, just when you think you can’t make it through the day.
And what’s really great, is if that same network of friends can help with the work stuff too.
Maybe someone can go to a meeting for you if you have to leave for crèche pick-up, just like you do for them when they’re doing drop-off. Perhaps they can send you the notes if you’re working from home and can’t get onto the network, just as you can take over running a conference call if they have to unexpectedly pick up a sick child. Most workplaces have meetings that don’t require every attendee, but people are afraid of missing something important. Having a work friend who will tag-team meetings reduces the burden for both of you, and is more efficient in general.
The wonderful thing about this particular tribe is that everyone understands the challenges, and everyone is dealing with a similar juggle - there’s mutual respect and an instinctive wish to help.
Nothing says “I know what you’re going through” like the surprise coffee waiting on your desk.
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