What Your Working Parents Aren’t Telling You – And Why Not Knowing Is Costing You

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Here’s the truth: Every day, many working parents walk into the office or log onto a Zoom call with a lot weighing on them. But they aren’t talking about it.

As working parents, we’ve learned to compartmentalize and avoid mentioning caregiving duties altogether in the workplace. Sometimes leaving us feeling like we have to be two different people. In fact, while 73% of the workforce identify as caregivers, only 56% of them say their work supervisor is aware of their caregiving responsibilities.

This disconnect and silence are costing organizations.

Parents and caregivers bring a goldmine of untapped leadership skills to organizations–and when management doesn’t understand the challenges working parents face and offer support, they end up losing out on this vast wealth of resources and talent.

Why working parents are keeping it close to the vest 

Society has normalized the belief that when it comes to being a good employee, having a child or being a caregiver is more of a mark against us than proof of our abilities. This perception is often disproportionately placed on women as evidenced by the “motherhood penalty” and its series of disadvantages.

Working parents are staying quiet because we are afraid of losing out on the promotion, receiving less pay or just not getting hired in the first place.

And here’s what we aren’t telling you.

Childcare is an endless struggle

Whether it’s scrambling to find childcare on school vacations, securing a coveted spot at daycare or simply doing the math to afford it, childcare is a major obstacle for parents. 

“It takes parents an average of 60 hours to source, vet, select, and hire/register with a childcare provider,” explains Becka Klauber Richter, President of Helpr, an app that helps employees find childcare. “The period of finding childcare creates household stress, very late and early working hours, and for those who cannot flex hours, it requires taking PTO.” 

This fall and winter have been especially debilitating from a sickness standpoint, with a record number of parents missing work due to sick children during the month of October. A parent can’t send a sick child to daycare and often can’t ask a family member or nanny to step in. It must be the parent.

And when company policies change and demand a return to the office for parents, this means a complete overhaul of childcare arrangements that add stress and cost to the equation.

Parents are worried about the mental health of their kids

Every day, parents are dealing with the fact that our children’s mental health is in danger and the system set up to support them is on edge; while employees have had to get back to life as before, many systems can’t snap back or adjust to the speed of demand.

Here are some sobering stats:

  • In the U.S., 5.6 million children ages 3-17 years old had been diagnosed with anxiety problems by 2020 and 2.4 million had been diagnosed with depression.
  • Five million school-aged children also experienced behavior and conduct problems in 2020, a 21% percent increase from 2019.

“Parents are now using a substantial amount of their time that may have been spent resting,

recharging or being present with their kids to navigate complex systems of healthcare to find

qualified mental health providers with availability,” Dr. Courtney Bolton, a child psychologist founder of Veer and CBHO of Imagine Pediatrics, explains. “It’s overwhelming and exhausting,” she adds.      

Whether or not parents are navigating this system they are still continually asking themselves, Am I spending enough time with my child? Are they ok?

The never-ending load

Even if childcare and mental health concerns weren’t an issue, would parents ever get to call it a day? Not really. The endless array of doctor appointments, early release days, afterschool activities, laundry, meal prep, grocery shopping, cooking, science fairs, birthdays, etc. means it’s a constant to-do list. And it’s not just a schedule-and-show-up approach with a neat check-off box at the end. It requires a perpetual awareness, or what sociologists call “the mental load.” This cognitive labor demands anticipating needs, identifying options, making decisions and monitoring progress. It is one of the most frequently discussed topics in our WRK/360 working parent coaching sessions, How do I manage this mental load, my family and my career all at once? Post-pandemic, the mental load has come back at a roaring, somewhat unsustainable rate.      

Perhaps this would be more sustainable if the timeshare and energy share aspects of parenting were more equal. But as it stands, one parent generally absorbs the majority of the mental load, and that person has traditionally been the mom. For single parents, the load falls squarely on their shoulders alone.

So what can we do?            

With all that’s happening behind the scenes, it can be really difficult to feel like we are excelling at our roles. But challenges don’t impede our work—they’re an unavoidable part of the human (and job) experience that most working parents have masterfully learned to navigate with the skill of a, well, boss.      

The takeaway here for organizations, executives, managers and teammates is to recognize the collective challenges of working parents and start the conversation. Talk to your teams and acknowledge what is going on behind the scenes. Be proactive. Ask this:

“How can we help? What changes can we make so that we all continue to succeed in our roles?” 

In that one conversation your working parents will feel seen, feel more valued and begin to feel the weight on their shoulders start to shift.

With the first step of recognition and conversation, organizations can begin to create the culture necessary for working parents to not just “get by”—but to thrive.

Posted In: Fathers & Work, Mothers & Work, Resources, Work & Family

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