Being a parent is hard enough. And trying to hold down a job while you're juggling the demands of family life is always going to be a challenge.
But what happens if new leadership opportunities arise at work – when home feels like it's already taking everything you've got?
New Parent, New Job
Three of my biggest upward steps in leadership coincided with new babies. Our first son was born in the same week that I was put in charge of a team of broadcasters.
Then a couple of years later, shortly after I won promotion to a senior management role, our daughter arrived. Eight years after that, having switched careers, I stepped up to be the Deputy Principal of an elementary school – just as we welcomed son number two into the fold.
I remember each of these periods as being incredibly happy and extremely tough. On one hand, life was exciting, and I felt lucky to have the chance to make a difference. People needed me, at home and at work, and I was determined to do them proud.
However, on the other hand, each day was a whirlwind. I was being pulled in all directions. I was constantly exhausted. And there were many times when I felt like I was letting everyone down.
Being a Working Parent is Tough – for Everyone
From conversations I've had with friends and colleagues, I know that this is a common feeling among working parents. I was also reassured to read about it in "Parents Who Lead," by Stewart D. Friedman and Alyssa F. Westring.
As they point out, parenting is the only legal 24/7 job! It comes with little or no training, the job specs keep changing, and the drain on your physical and emotional resources is intense and relentless.
Trying to combine it with your actual job is bound to be a big ask, whichever number child you're on and however old they are.
In our case, we somehow managed to maintain a (mostly) happy family life, and we kept hold of our jobs.
There were often tough decisions to make about which parent would pick up which responsibility. For example, who should take the day off work when one of the kids was suddenly sick? Or who was better placed to go part-time during the baby years? As my colleague Suzanne White has recounted in an eye-opening blog, "Working Moms and Daddy Day Care," these are problems that many co-parents grapple with.
In our case, we mixed-and-matched as best we could, confronted some of our own assumptions as well as society's "norms," and somehow stayed friends (most of the time).
But it often felt like we were both making sacrifices – at home and at work.
Working Parent Power
With a family, life's unpredictable and often messy. It doesn't seem to provide the ideal backdrop for a successful career, especially when you're taking on new leadership roles.
But I've found that it's not all negative. In fact, there are moments when being a parent is an advantage at work, and times when your professional skills come into their own at home.
I know that I grew in confidence from being a parent, for example. After all, if I could prep for a meeting while putting out breakfast, then defuse a toddler tantrum on the way to pre-school, and still get to my desk on time, how hard could the rest of the day be?
And if I could mediate between team members with different views, surely I could sort out an argument between an eight- and a six-year-old about which cartoon to watch?
There were even moments – often more by luck than judgment – when everything came together beautifully. "Parents Who Lead" calls these "four-way wins."
These magical moments happen when you do things that turn out to be good for you, your family, your organization, and even your community.
One good example for me was getting involved in my son's soccer club. It was great for my health. He loved having me there, while it was obviously a good way to strengthen community links, too.
Rather less obviously, it also helped me at work. It provided new insights about team working, for instance. I even made valuable business contacts simply by chatting to the other moms and dads.
I spotted four-way wins at work, too. One time I led a partnership putting on a new music festival – which turned out well for my organization, and for me. It let me indulge my love of live music, give something back to the community, and maybe even talk to my teenagers!
The Best of Both Worlds?
In my experience (and often through getting it wrong first), parenting breeds resilience. It teaches you to prioritize, and enriches a wide range of communication skills. It also equips you to deal with all the different – and sometimes difficult – people that you meet at work.
If you let it, your work can enrich your parenting. Why not borrow a few professional time-management techniques for home life, for example? Once or twice we've sorted out home issues by running family meetings. Don't leave all your hard-won work skills at the office, if they could help you at home.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned is to ditch the idea of "work-life balance," and aim for "work-life integration" instead. Purely in scheduling terms, there aren't enough hours in the day to achieve everything – if you try to keep family and work distinct.
So, find a few ways for them to overlap comfortably, and both will seem that bit more manageable.
Stand Up for Working Parents
The parents on your team may have bags under their eyes, and you may spot them glancing at their watches toward the end of meetings. However, they're likely developing new skills and experiences to bring to their job. So, support them when life is tough, and guide them in putting all the things that they're learning to good use.
Talk to them about what will help most. A working parent may need more time to do something, more help with part of their role. Or they may just need a little more flexibility for a while. Then again, they may need more challenge at work – and be ready for it.
With the right support, work can help parents to keep going. It provides co-workers to talk to, tasks to interest and challenge them, and chances to prove themselves beyond their parenting role. Emerging from lockdown, these are things that many parents must be longing for!
Meanwhile, with each new stage of family life, parents will likely be growing into even more confident and competent professionals. After all, they're receiving some of the best leadership training it's possible to get!
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What's your take on the leadership challenges and opportunities for working parents? Join the discussion below!