Making it work as a working parent (Co-authored by Neha Parekh)
The demands of both work and parenting are rising. People are working longer hours. More women are entering the workforce globally. There is constant pressure to spend quality time with your children.
So, how should we manage our careers and parenting responsibilities?
I am very pleased that Neha Parekh has written this week’s message, sharing her reflections and adventures as a working parent. Neha, who joined our PSO team last year, leads Planning for the India and SAARC businesses.
Being a parent is one of the most exciting and memorable things that can happen to you. It changes your life forever. A wriggly, noisy joy ride as many of us say.
22 December, 2015 was one of the best days of our lives. We were blessed with our bundle of joy and we named him Aagam, which means “arrival of joy”. And that’s exactly what he has been for us; full of colourful, new adventures every day.
I’ve always looked for role models and inspiration. Different people and events have inspired me. Now, I want to be able to offer that to my child. One way in which I – like so many of you reading this – can, is by being working parents.
If you’re doing this already, then you’ve probably been asked – “How do you do both? How do you manage your career and being a parent?” Of course there’s no one answer, but through this message I want to share with you some of my reflections and those of my friends and family.
Some things to know as a (new) parent:
1. Be prepared to be overwhelmed
Unlike promotions at work, where you land a role with tested skill sets, parenting is very different. You get ‘promoted’ as parent first and then start acquiring the required skills on the go
The first few months are overwhelming. I remember being hit by this mix of sleeplessness and insomnia. My husband, Keyur, would go to office with blood shot eyes in morning because we barely slept at night. There were too many times we had to wake up to check on Aagam. We thought we had it all planned, but soon realised that no planning could prepare us for this.
Most new parents find 24 hour days too short. But don’t give up. You’ll surprise yourself by how you learn to thrive it. What really helped us was having our parents around. We learned to ask for help and take whatever we got.
On a lighter note, you will also see your priorities change. Our shopping carts once filled with shoes, wallets and bags were replaced with diapers, baby wipes and all kinds of baby products. A 30 per cent discount on Pampers gave me more joy than seeing a discount on that nice pair of shoes!
2. Set realistic expectations for yourself
You do it for your projects at work, so why not here too? Be realistic in the goals you set for yourself. This was the best advice I got. Have clear targets and priorities. It’ll only help you make decisions later on. For example, you may decide to say that you will never miss dinner time with your child or that you will attend all parent teacher meetings. Choose something that is meaningful for you. Don’t fall into the common trap of being guilty by what your friends or peers are doing. This is not a competition.
We made choices. Like when I’d have to choose between a shower or laundry. I could choose to skip a shower, but couldn’t dare miss laundry on any day! We also set a few goals – have dinner together as family with no interruptions like the TV or phone, spend at least an hour in the park post dinner, take him to visit his grandparents (or have them visiting him) at least once in three months. This helped him bond extremely well with them and his emotional circle grew larger. It helped us manage workloads during crucial times because our parents could come to help. This also helped me take a career of call of switching jobs when he was just a year old.
3. Be equal parents
As Sheryl Sandberg says, “A truly equal world would be when women ran half of our countries and companies and men ran half of our households”. If only one parent ends up managing a career, kids and running of all other chores, it’s bound to be exhausting. So it’s important that your partner shares an equal load. It takes a lot of patience and encouragement for each other, but if you work as a team, it becomes fun.
Both of us are hands-on parents. Letting Keyur share meant I could travel. This helped me take up a larger role involving projects across multiple geographies in ASEAN. We sync our calendars for three months at a time to ensure that we don’t plan travel that clashes. We also try to manage our work accordingly when we have to stay at home alone with our son. We have even added complementary skills to ensure that we equip ourselves to care better for Aagam – Keyur taught me how to drive and brushed up his cooking skills! Teaming up also helps share experiences and small joys. I still recall when our three-year-old pooped after a gap of 5 long days and we celebrated like India won another World Cup
4. Learn to let go
While it’s a demanding world, we have to be realistic that no one is going to be perfect. As parents we will goof up and make mistakes, but that’s how we learn along the way. So it’s important to let it go and not keep beating yourself up over it.
When I first took my one-year-old to day care, I felt terrible. As if I was doing something wrong. However today when I look at it, I feel that was the right step. It made my son extremely social and he learnt a lot more than what we could have possibly inculcated in him, alone at home. The warmth provided by teachers and the staff there helped him open up and now we have no issues when we take him out with us. He made good friends. There were also times when he chose his teacher or grandmother over me. Rather than feeling bad, I was relieved that he had a bigger circle of influence and would be fine if I had to travel for work. There was also a remarkable improvement in his food habits, which was very helpful!
Then there were times when we accidentally missed vaccine appointments or took a rather ambitious trip which became an epic flop due to a sudden illness or tantrums. But it all worked out at the end.
How to manage the work front as a parent:
1. Be absolutely transparent
While most organisations have pro-parenting policies, most of us either don’t make full use of them or at times assume a lot of things without calling them out. Being transparent about your life stage helps you set expectations well with your peers and most importantly, with your manager. Be transparent about your limitations, instead of parenting there aren’t any.
When I got a call from Godrej about a job, I asked HR upfront if the company had day care. Rather than this proving to be a deterrent to me getting the job, it opened up more conversation. I was pleasantly surprised that during my visit to the office for the interview, they had arranged for a tour of the day care. Just before returning to work from my maternity break, I started acclimatising Aagam to stay without me for 2-3 hours. To get myself into work mode again, I had a few calls with my team to get the feel of things. That slowly set the pace for me. It also helped them understand where I was at.
2. Be ruthless about prioritisation
As parents, the one thing we learn best is managing time well and being ruthless when it comes to prioritisation. Like I said earlier, the first step is to ensure we set realistic goals. Once set, we need to make sure we follow them. In our case, we had made it a point to have some outdoor play time with Aagam every day and we followed it religiously for a year. When I changed my job it got difficult as travel time increased. So, just to ensure that we didn’t miss out on that priority, we ended up moving home to shift closer to work.
3. Always have a Plan B
There will be times when you need to pay more attention to your child or travel urgently for work. So it’s important to have backups and use them and most importantly rehearse them. Try leaving your child with other people to see if they can be a backup when you have work travel. Or try managing him alone as a trial without your partner to see if you can. Having tested backups will reduce stress significantly and help you stay calm during contingencies. We make it a point for Aagam to have one summer break with his grandparents. This gives them much needed bonding time and on other hand gives us a good break to refresh from our routine and take a short vacation ourselves
4. Ask the village
There is an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” and this is true even today. For a working parent, the village is colleagues, friends and family. So whenever in doubt, ask the village without any hesitation. Form groups of likeminded parents, school friends of your child, because these networks will help you manage things. I remember having passionate conversations around sleep habits and poop colour analyses with other new moms in my office.
When we started searching for a school, I tried connecting with a few colleagues with kids of the same age. Amazingly, I found inputs not just on one school, but the overall process. This prompted us to start a small WhatsApp group. We could divide the work on researching schools over the weekend, which made it much easier.
5. The myth of the 50-50 split
It’s not true that you need to split your work and parenting 50-50 to be good at both. You can’t have an equal split. At times, you might have a project nearing a deadline, which means investing more time at work and likewise personally, when you have a sick child you will need to spend more time home. As long as you remain flexible and are committed to both, this balance is achievable. The bottom line is that the work should inspire you to put in your best. And the reward of having a happy bundle of joy waiting for you back home is amazing.
As I see it, parenthood is probably life’s most cherished experience; it not only changes us for good but also makes life more meaningful. Be it at work or otherwise, being a parent is the best leadership lesson you get.
Thank you to Neha for her useful perspectives. Parenting can be remarkably rewarding while challenging. I hope that you will apply some of Neha’s tips to make the complex dynamic between work and parenting, work. Are there any other suggestions that you have? If so, we would love to hear from you.