Friday, August 6, 2010

Hand a Congressman a Baby! --The Washington Post

In my early banking career, I oscillated between all-nighters and cross-country red-eyes. Not fun. But I enjoyed the delusion that these rookie years were the worst of it, that I was building life-long skills and endurance to face any test ahead. Then came kids.

Sensing my pre-child naivete, a few kind souls tried to open my eyes: "You won't have time to take a shower," said a friend who'd dodged bullets as a reporter and finished medical school with two infants. "Very tired, all the time, for years," my dad recalled, about starting out as a parent -- worrisome coming from a guy who'd survived foster care and World War II.

Still, I clung to that belief that it couldn't be that bad. Until a few months into working parenthood. Then, driving the highway to work one morning, exhausted after a string of bad nights, I had a weird cop fantasy: I imagined that a kindly patrolman pulled me over to give me a ticket - and an order: "Park your car, ma'am. Take a nap."

Last week, Vice President Biden's Middle Class Task Force reframed the problems of working parents "not as women's issues" but as "issues of middle class economic security." Great start.

Biden and Attorney General Holder vowed to collect better data on the working parent pay gap and better educate the public about laws to protect workers with kid duties. But can policy alone do the trick?

Only 25% of families have a parent taking care of things at home full-time. Why aren't the rest of us - the 75% of us responsible for both jobs and kids -- getting things fixed faster? Half the workforce is female. And eight-in-ten women become mothers. So primary care for children impacts at least 40% of workers at some point in their lives - and the majority if we acknowledge that many men are primary parents too.

My hunch is this: Compelling demographics aren't moving enough of us to action because we are flummoxed: Why and how should working parents change the workplace? Standing in the way of finding even basic solutions -- think paid leave, daycare, child sick days -- are a set of hazardous thoughts, sometimes unspoken, often emotional, that are hard to resist. I've fallen prey to at least three myself:

1.The underestimation: "Babies can't be that hard" (afflicting non- and pre-parents).

2.The overestimation: "Babies are infinitely hard," (suffered by new parents in the manic early years).

3.The exasperation: "A baby? Now?" (the look in the eyes of many bosses and co-workers, saying that having a baby is not convenient - ever).

First, it would help if we accurately talked about what it takes to bring new people into the world. While our children are a source of unspeakable joy, the process of raising them is not. "I'm so glad you'll have time to relax and bond with your baby," a non-parent said to me before my first maternity leave - the grittiness of 12-hours of daily breastfeeding and other post-partum charms invisible to both of us then.

Now we know: babies are just a wild amount of work, from the hurricane of infancy to croup and ear infections to pre-verbal tests of will and whining. After our first child recovered from hand-foot-and-mouth disease (which covered him in tiny painful blisters, making eating impossible and crying endless), my husband asked me: "Do you think the stork could deliver babies at age two?"

Second, let's admit inaccuracy can swing in the other direction -- that we parents can get a little nutty in the name of protecting our kids As a 20-something, I raised my eyebrows at overly fussy parents and vowed I'd be much more easy-going. Hah.

When a nurse hands you an infant and it's clear that you are actually responsible for another life, you find yourself succumbing to all sorts of scary ideas. There are plenty of bona fide threats to children, but the intensity of early parenthood can make it hard to draw the line between prudence and paranoia. I imagined an invisible army of microbes perpetually menacing my baby; I double sterilized bottles and used Purell in ways its makers never intended. My husband obsessed over SIDS, despite baby bumpers and doctor's assurances. He would get up at night to make sure our kids were still breathing.

As individuals, working parents can do a lot to help themselves - talking early and often about what's needed (and not) to raise the next generation. It's the third kind of hazardous thought - the workplace impulse to see kids as irksome - that Mr. Biden can help with most.

It's tough for me to confess, but the first time I saw a pregnant peer where I worked, the only words that came to mind were: "Why is she having a baby?" Child creation just didn't seem in the spirit of a hard-charging workplace.

Sadly, my sentiment then remains in the workplace today. Writing our book, Getting to 50/50, we learned how this view (that being a primary parent is incompatible with serious work) plays out in many venues today - including board rooms.

"What is she thinking?" a board member asked in a meeting a few years ago when he heard that a founder of the soon-to-be-public company was going on maternity leave. "She's thinking that she's 39," responded the only woman the room.

The board wrangled over whether the decision to reproduce meant the founder would be less focused on her job. Anticipating the worst, the board decided to re-allocate some of her pay to other executives - who weren't under suspicion for losing their edge to kids.

Research by Stanford professor Shelley Correll shows how all of us (men and women) list toward the belief that motherhood (aka primary parenthood) permanently drains commitment and competence from talented women. When a father of small kids is late or looks dazed in a meeting, we're more willing to assume it's an aberration, a passing phase, and he'll snap back to top form because he values his job. We give him the benefit of the doubt. Do we give women the same?

Biden's task force can do a lot to address the woeful miseducation of many people at the top. While only the minority of families have a parent at home, the majority of people who make the rules and set the tone at work come from these households.

In fact, the a Council on Contemporary Families paper recently pointed out that the mismatch between family cultures of . executives and the rest of the workforce is the largest blocker of sensible workplace policy.

Leaders with spouses at home need to stop assuming that this is normal - or necessarily desirable. Research shows that kids do at least as well when both parents work. Executives should also read the growing pool of business school research that further upends traditional thought: It says we get statistically higher results if we tell everyone (not just parents) to go home for dinner. That replacing 24/7 machismo with time out of the office yields better teamwork, better thinking and better output, according to the Harvard Business Review).

After spending a weekend with his kids alone, one male executive told me, "If every man in Congress had to do this, we'd have some very different laws." So let's give Mr. Biden a hand and do our part advancing the ball.

The next time a politician kisses a baby, let's tell him to hang on to the tyke for the weekend. And let's think of everyone we know who somehow missed the course in mano-a-mano kid management - our dads, brothers, uncles, buddies - and get them a multi-day childcare gig (solo flight, no helping hands allowed). Education can do a lot to turn dangerous thoughts into useful ones - and nothing teaches faster than a little baby bootcamp.


Jennifer said...

NIce post, i really like the way u written, thanx.

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