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End the Plague of Secret Parenting

If mothers and fathers speak openly about child-care obligations, their colleagues will adapt.

The Atlantic

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I’m an economist. I love data and evidence. I love them so much that I write books about data-based parenting. When questions arise about how to support parents at work (for example, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter), my first impulse is to endorse paid parental leave. Mountains of data and evidence show that paid leave is good for children’s health, and for mothers in particular. I am more than comfortable making a data-based case for this policy.

But experience, rather than pure data, leads me to believe that what happens after paid leave is nearly as crucial—that is to say, what happens when Mom and Dad return to the office. We need to normalize the experience of parenting while working.    

For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with parents—mostly women—about all aspects of life with little kids. (My book, Cribsheet, focuses on using data to make parenting decisions.) One thing I heard much more than I would have liked, and more than I would have expected, was that parents feel the need to hide or minimize the evidence of their children at the office.

I should be clear that most of the parents I spoke with had good—enviable, lengthy, gender-neutral—leave policies. 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.  

One woman told me she worked on a team of men, all of whom were fathers. Pregnant with her first child, she noted that none of the men ever talked about their children, and she assumed she shouldn’t either.

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.  

Reinforcing this point, women professors at my university told me that when they were more junior, they made it a point never to put pictures of their children up in their offices.

These are, however, mostly anecdotes. And I often argue in my writing that anecdotes are not enough. Thankfully at least some research exists on what you might call “secret parenting,” even if much of it is more qualitative than strictly data-based. One example is a 2014 paper in Gender, Work & Organization based on interviews with 26 mothers of small children.

The women returned again and again to the issue of secrecy: “Hiding being a mother and engaging in strategies for secrecy were ubiquitous themes in our interviews,” the authors wrote. “Many women who had gone back to work tried to conceal that they had small children or pretended that their children’s interests were of little importance to them.”  

Why would people do this? Why pretend kids are of “little importance”? When work and parenting seem at odds—because our culture tells us they’re at odds—mothers and fathers feel forced to demonstrate their commitment to one (the work side) by minimizing their concern for the other (the parenting side). They do not want their bosses to think they are anything other than 100 percent committed.  

To draw from personal experience: I was an untenured assistant professor when I had my first child, and I went back to the office for my first meeting when she was just a couple of weeks old. Yes, I did that in part because I wanted to get out of the house and see other adults. But I was also worried that if I didn’t get back to the office fast and show my face, my senior colleagues would assume I wasn’t planning to take my job seriously going forward.

Hiding your kids at work is no easy task. Even if you skip baseball games and school plays and parent-teacher conferences, your kids will sometimes get sick. Child care will fall through on occasion. Some of the women in that paper I cited above reported that they had feigned illness when their child got sick, because taking a sick day for themselves seemed acceptable, but taking one to nurse a child did not.

These pressures aren’t just bad for parents; they’re bad for employers. Inflexibility around child care is, quite simply, going to cost firms valuable workers. Most of the women in that study left the labor force. Other research has found that “the presence of children” is a main driver of the gender gap in career outcomes, even for highly educated workers, because women drop out when their employer can’t accommodate their schedule.

If a workplace doesn’t offer paid parental leave, the solution, though possibly difficult to achieve on a political level, is obvious: paid parental leave. The climate issues that lead to secret parenting are more nebulous, and thus seem more difficult to fix. But perhaps the answer is just as clear. Fight the culture that encourages secret parenting by … not parenting secretly. Eventually, your colleagues will adapt.

This change cannot come from the lowest rungs of the organization. More senior employees must take the lead. Two kids in, I’m now a tenured full professor. I am on the other side, so to speak. But my kids are still young—4 and 8—and I value seeing them every day for dinner; I do not like to travel much. Not too long ago, I would have explained away my time constraints with other obligations or been vague about them.

But I try consciously not to do that now. I tell people, “I’m sorry, I do not do meetings after 5 p.m., because of my children.” Or even, “Sorry, but today I’m leaving at 3:30 because I’ve been traveling a lot and I promised my kids I’d come home early to make cookies.” And I particularly try to say things like that around more junior colleagues, those who might wonder whether it is okay for them to have these constraints. I have pictures of my kids up everywhere, and right now I’m looking at a child’s mitten, which has been sitting on my desk since sometime in December. One glance around my office, and you’d know I’m a parent.

Nor can women, even senior women, change the tenor of their workplaces alone. Men have to do it also. Parenting is not a mom-only activity. Men also want to see their kids, to be there for dinner, for bedtime.

Once parents start acknowledging their child-care obligations openly, the need for specific changes may become apparent. For example, little kids go to sleep early. The hours between, say, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. are really central for parents. What if they spoke up about that more? Employers might then see the benefit of making clear to parents that they needn’t fulfill their work obligations within the confines of a traditional day. Many of us would be happy to log on before our kids are up or after they are in bed. For me, a phone call at 8:15 p.m. is infinitely better than a meeting at 6 p.m. Openness about, say, sickness would also force employers to confront that even the best-laid child-care plans break down. Parents should have the flexibility to (occasionally) have a kid in their office or, better yet, be given access to emergency child care.

Put simply, mothers and fathers ought to come clean about the nature of their lives. We can’t fix problems that we pretend don’t exist; we can’t improve the lot of parents at work if we pretend we aren’t parents.

Emily Oster is an economist at Brown University. She is the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool and Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published May 21, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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