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The Phenomenon of Silent Parenting (and How Leaders Can Support Parents in the Workplace)

A mother, father and child sit at a table eating breakfast. The father is pouring milk into a cereal bowl for their daughter.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has created disruption across the marketplace unlike any seen before. Employees are struggling to perform their work under these new, highly challenging circumstances.  

Parents have born a unique burden throughout the entirety of the pandemic, and women, in particular, have experienced a greater negative impact.  

Mothers have seen the careful balancing act of work and home responsibilities completely upended. Where before women could segment their day into careful buckets of time – a workday, followed by evening hours of caregiving and household work – the new normal of remote work means employees are living an always-on, always-visible life.

Persistent Parenting Challenges are Laid Bare by COVID-19 and Remote Work 

The pressure of this always-accessible change in work has caused some women to consider reducing their hours or removing themselves from the workforce entirely. According to the US Department of Labor, the ratio of women working has now fallen below 57% for the first time since 1988.  

Additionally, in a recent report by McKinsey & Company, the list of challenges women note as contributing factors to leave the workforce include: 

  • A lack of flexibility at work; 
  • An expectation to be available to work at all hours and be “always on;” 
  • Increased housework and caregiving burdens due to COVID19; 
  • Potential discomfort sharing the challenges they face with colleagues or managers; 
  • Feeling blindsided by decisions that affect their day-to-day work; 
  • Feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work; and 
  • Worry that their performance is being negatively judged because of caregiving responsibilities. 

Mothers, especially, are more likely than fathers to worry their work performance is being negatively impacted and/or judged due to their now-visible parenting and caregiving duties, the bulk of which still falls to women in their households. 

Pause and Ask: How often have you felt you needed to overcompensate at work due to fear of judgment or negative impact (perceived or real)? Tweet me your reflections.

Silent Parenting in the Workplace 

This is nothing new for mothers. The pressure has always existed, even if it is self-imposed, to prove to co-workers that nothing has changed now that children are in the mix. There is always a persistent fear that they might seem unreliable or less committed to work, and this fear drives many women to keep their role as parents a secretive facet of their personality. 

In the pre-pandemic, traditional office, this might have looked like: 

  • Announcing pregnancy at the latest possible moment, or not at all;
  • Fear of using PTO or flexible hours for childcare duties; 
  • Going beyond their work duties to prove themselves committed to working, including working late at night and/or on weekends; 
  • Hiding their breastfeeding needs, either leaving to breastfeed their child or taking time to secretively pump; 
  • Purposely hiding or not displaying photos of children in their workspaces; 
  • Over-justification of need to leave early for a few hours for care duties; and 
  • Not discussing or sharing that they have children. 

Eventually, this façade cracks (and it will crack) when kids get sick or childcare falls through and you must make the risk calculation to miss a meeting or use valuable PTO to fulfill your parenting duties.  

For previous, less wired, generations – it was easy to keep these two lives separate. Today’s technology has changed the way women must negotiate this precarious separation – and many are deciding it simply is not worth it. 

Pause and Ask: How has technology creep blurred the boundaries between work and home in your own life? How might technology have inadvertently enabled you to encroach on a colleague’s privacy? Tweet me your reflections.

Current Work Environments Increase Risks of Loss of Valuable Employees 

The pandemic has exacerbated a mental health crisis for mothers across the country. A feeling of hopelessness and persistent anxiety has crept into many mothers’ lives. The burden of combining work and childcare has led to many mothers fearing judgment because of these blurred lines. Kids pop up on cameras, meetings may have to move unexpectedly to accommodate a sick child or homeschooling need, and mothers may not be as responsive or available during normal work hours as they once were in the traditional office – and they make up for it with late-night email sessions after the kids are in bed.  

Add to this the fear of negative judgment from peers or decision-makers who may carry biases against mothers, and it only amplifies the mental load women are carrying. There is a false assumption that mothers cannot be committed to both work and family and are often perceived as ‘less committed than their male counterparts. And a McKinsey & Company report finds women are twice as likely to fear judgment for their work performance after kids than men.  

These changes are unsustainable, and recent workforce numbers show how many women are choosing between two impossible options: leaving the workforce or significantly scaling back. A US Department of Labor report showed that over 850,000 women (about half the population of New Mexico) had dropped out of the workforce as of September 2020. And LeanIn.org has discovered that millions more are downshifting or planning a slowdown in their careers.  

Pause and Ask: In what ways have you seen parents forced to dial back or slow down at work? As a leader, what possibilities are there for you in those situations to help? Tweet me your reflections.

Mothers Face Long-Term Career Consequences if the Culture Remains in Stasis 

The possibility of losing such a significant population within the workforce should alarm companies of all sizes. And how companies choose to address this issue will define how the workplace will look for people for generations to come. 

An employment gap of just one year for women often translates to a near 40% decrease in their annual earnings over time, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The difficulty of re-entering the workforce, let alone re-entering at a salary that matches their skillset, grows exponentially the longer mothers remain out of the workforce. 

This moment of disruption is the time to redefine what the workplace will look like for mothers. It will require a willingness to fearlessly audit the role leaders play in employees lives and adaptive thinking to evolve the office into a more equitable landscape. 

A Fearless Audit for Leaders 

  1. What are we doing or not doing as an organization that may contribute to additional or unnecessary stress to parents?  
  2. What am I doing or not doing as a leader that may contribute to additional or unnecessary stress to parents?  
  3. What is one thing I could differently to better acknowledge and support the challenges parents (especially mothers) face? 

What Leaders Can Do to Help Parents Show Up as Their Whole Selves at Work 

  1. Make flexible work schedules and remote work options the norm instead of the exception. This flexibility has significant positive benefits for all team members.  
  2. Expand parental leave to be consistent for both mothers and fathers. Consider allowing team members to adjust when they take their time over the first year so that both parents can support their child in the most effective way possible.  
  3. Create one bank of time off instead of breaking it up based on vacation or sick days. This allows parents to use time-off when it is most needed.  
  4. Those in authority should be role models for taking time off, talking about family, and having photos of family up or kids in zoom calls.  
  5. Talk to your parents, especially mothers, about how else you can best support them.  
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