There was recently a really interesting story in The Atlantic about “secret parenting,” and I thought it might make an interesting discussion here, if only because I recognized so much of the behavior they’re talking about in the story is true not only of my own experience but what I’ve been advised by mentors and other advisors.
Emily Oster lays out all sorts of “secret parenting” that women and men do at work, arguing that in order to normalize parenthood in the in the workplace, we shouldn’t hide our child-care obligations — but instead, many parents feel the need to hide or minimize the evidence of their children at the office.
The issues they encountered were more subtle, more nebulous, more about climate….
Women told me that they hid their pregnancies until well into the third trimester, wearing loose-fitting clothes to avoid telling their bosses or venture-capital funders that they were expecting. Once they had kids, some told me they simply never discussed them. If they had to deal with a child-related issue, they lied about why they were leaving work.
The general sense is that everyone should adopt the polite fiction that after the first several months of leave, the child disappears into a void from which he or she emerges for viewing and discussing only during nonworking hours.
This so exactly mirrored things I had been told by older working moms and my own mentors — many of which I’ve repeated here! — that I think it’s an interesting topic to discuss.
Do you “secretly parent” — and is it intentional? In what ways do you keep things quiet about your parenting? What do you think would happen if you stopped “secretly parenting,” and how do you think you’d be received? Do you think there are certain kinds of people who should lead the charge in this regard? (Thoughts of Sheryl Sandberg’s famous and loud proclamation that she leaves work by 5:30 are running through my mind right now…)
For my own $.02, I absolutely secretly parent. I was advised to do as much when I was a working lawyer, with older moms telling me, for example, that I should never take a sick day for my child, but rather say it’s my own health at issue. I’ve even advised women to keep family pictures away from the office, and we’ve discussed whether or not to talk about your kids at work. As a blogger, if my posts are late or missing entirely (cough), I try not to blame it on my kids, even if some last-minute emergency or boondoggle involving them is the real reason behind it.
In terms of who should lead the charge, I’m curious to see what readers say here — if you’re at a mid level in your company or otherwise trying to keep your head down, “parenting loudly” is far from what you want to do if you’re trying to keep your job and advance, albeit, perhaps, slowly. I feel like an article like this, bemoaning “secret parenting” and suggesting that parents should stop doing it, is better aimed at the fathers and the smaller proportion of women leading their teams or companies.
I don’t know, readers — what do you think? Do you think “secret parenting” has helped or hurt your career? Do you feel an obligation to change expectations and act differently for the people behind you? If you’re mid-level in your career, do you feel like you should set an example for subordinates? For those of you with superiors who are making a great example of “parenting loudly,” what are they doing? (Slightly related — I just saw a great article about a high-level woman executive who added a line to her emails to the effect of, “Please note that I do not expect a reply on evenings or weekends,” which I thought was great in general for work-life balance (and of course I can’t find the link now).)
Stock photo via Deposit Photos / halfpoint.
I work for the federal government in Canada, which has pretty great leave provisions. Nationally, all Canadians can now take up to 18 months of maternity/parental leave with some level of funding (as long as they have been paying into EI prior to taking leave). It’s not your full salary, but most organizations have some sort of top-up provision. The federal government tops up your pay to 93% for twelve months (if you take 18 months, the last 6 are at the EI rate only).
When you get back to work, there are five days of family leave (with more available at the discretion of your manager) for various reasons but that can include being involved in school activities for your child(ren), family medical appointments, last minute childcare fall-through, and family sick days. You’re then able to take your own sick time if your child is sick and sometimes, if your work can be done remotely, managers will approve teleworking to work around family obligations.
I think a large part of talking about parenting in the workplace comes from how long you’re away. If you’ve been gone for a year (or now 18 months as was put in effect Jan 1), you have lots to catch up on, and people know why you were gone. It just seems so strange to me that you would slide back into your position and not talk about the reason you were gone.
However, it’s really all about company culture, and then even more narrowly, manager/supervisor personalities. There have definitely been some people that I have worked for (unfortunately, all women) that if I still worked for them I probably would have hidden things from.
I guess I forgot to actually state that I do not secretly parent. My manager frequently asks about my daughter and my current pregnancy, my coworkers ask to see pictures and know when we have a fun outing planned, and I will sometimes be five minutes late or leave early (making up the time elsewhere, or logging in after hours) in order to handle daycare drop off or pickup when my husband cannot – and I do not lie about it.
+1 “…it’s really all about company culture.” When I was in NYC biglaw (granted, 10 years ago now), very few people talked about their kids, and the ones who did were equity partners who didn’t have anything to prove. Frankly, I can’t recall any associates who had kids although there must (??) have been some.
Since leaving biglaw I’ve been at a F100 company where everyone, men and women, from executives down to new hires, is open about kids and outside-work obligations. I even had a manager (jokingly, I promise!) tell me I needed to have a third kid because that’s just what lawyers here do. I’m working with one person now who does not talk about his kid and isn’t receptive to kid-talk in general, but he’s a rare exception (and he’s not really open to small talk of any sort). Employees at my company work hard, with often-long hours, and we have a lot of families with a SAHP…but being open about kid obligations or telling people you’re unavailable for X because of Y-kid related reasons, is acceptable (as long as the work still gets done). I feel very fortunate to be in an environment where I’ve never felt I had to hide being a parent.
No, I don’t secretly parent. I don’t talk about my kids all the time, but I have been open and upfront if I’m home with a sick kid or something. I direct a team that includes several parents of young kids. I would be doing them a disservice if I hid everything. (That said, I have a child with a hidden disability, and I use a lot of discretion in what I disclose about therapy appointments; I just call them medical appointments because that’s what they are. That’s more to protect my child’s privacy than to protect myself as a parent.)
Yeah, sort of. My government workplace is laidback, nobody works more than 40 hours/week, everyone uses all their (generous) vacation time, so it’s definitely not a Big Law culture or anything like that that prizes 24/7 availability and doing nothing except work. But I’m just generally a quiet,private person who’s not super open about my personal life so I don’t really talk about my kids ever. I didn’t disclose my pregnancy to my boss until 16 weeks and even then I didn’t go around making announcements about it, only mentioned it when it came up naturally in conversation which was most often in the third trimester when I was very visibly pregnant. I do have family photos in my office and don’t lie about where I am if I’m staying home with a sick child.
A political leader just resigned because she felt that she couldn’t be a parent and run a party and part of me thought you do you and part of cringed thinking about the message this was sending to young women.
No secret parenting here – my boss and colleagues have met my child and there is an informal networking group for moms (for networking, read: a drink before the nursery run) of young kids. Mat leaves are 6-12 months so it’s not like you’re just out of the office for 8 weeks. My boss has elementary school kids and talks about them in casual conversation. I have been pretty open about the fact that I’m only having one though, which I suspect is a mix of a desire not to have colleagues eye me up if I’ve been eating too many sweets and an indication that I’m a serious academic and won’t have another mat leave.
This is interesting to me. I’m also likely one and done but tend to be really secretive about that fact, because if I say I’m deliberately only having one child people start listing reasons having only one child is terrible. I’ve found that it’s easier to be vague about our plans and then maybe people will assume stopping at one isn’t entirely by choice and not be “helpful” with their opinions about only children. Do you get a lot of negative comments? (But I totally hear you on the “eating too many sweets” thing lol).
I’m expecting my first and am very up-front about likely “one and done.” Since I’m older (late 30s), I frame it as – we are lucky we could conceive, and we’re so relieved that all the testing came back negative for genetic disorders, and we just don’t see the need to push our luck by trying for another.
I have a special needs kid who is under school aged. We were approved for ten hours a week of a occupational therapist working with our kid and due to the backlog and the number of hours we are approved for the sessions have to be two afternoons a week. Husband is self employed and is going to be the parent at the sessions (they require a guardian to show up).
I work self employed for as many hours he does (and earn about the same) but also teach 20 hours a week (income on top of the self employment income) and it is essentially impossible for me to attend any of the sessions at all. There’s been some passive aggressiveness from husband about the situation. I’ve offered to quit the teaching job but he has said no as we can use the money.
I don’t advertise parenting obligations if it’s not necessary – for example, if I’m home with a sick kiddo and I’m fairly certain I can get through a call without him making noise, I won’t bring it up. My admin loves kids and has grandkids my sons’ age so I do always tell her, because she loves to make conversation about children.
I work with several men who will mention that they have to leave early to do pickup. I really appreciate that. I also mention it if it comes up, though I don’t leave quite as early as they do so people rarely notice.
as counsel in biglaw, i tend to secretly parent to those above the chain to me and outside of my firm, and openly parent to those below the chain.
Irish Midori says
I don’t secretly parent, but I also don’t bring it up too much at work. That’s my choice, generally. I actually get irritated when the only conversation coworkers can think of to make small talk with me is about my kids. Ask me how my cases are going, or whether I’ve read any good books lately, or what I think about X political candidate or news story. But then, I’ve always been a little sensitive about losing other aspects of “me” into the role of motherhood. I don’t want work me to get sucked into that too.
But in terms of being honest about kid sick days and pickup times, yeah, I usually say what it’s for. Others in the office have kids, and they are totally respectful of that.
I am intentionally a very loud parent. I’m the head of my agency, so I use that to set the tone that I expect parents to prioritize family as much as possible. :)