It’s been another restless night at the Coates Mather house. My husband and I stumble down the stairs, into the kitchen, kids in tow, spilling cheerios, milk and half brewed coffee all over the place. Its 6:20am, go time is 7:20am. We debate about who should get ready first as we side glance at unanswered emails and manage one kid’s morning tantrum and the others requests for “something different for breakfast”. This is when we inevitably realize there’s barely time to shower before we drop the kids off at daycare and school so we can start the hour long commute to the office. Yikes! Raise you emoji hand if this sounds familiar.
This is but a wee snap shot in the daily life of us so called “career driven parents”. My husband and I have both chosen client facing careers. It’s what makes our jobs fun and rewarding but also unpredictable and stressful. But we forge ahead, driven by personal ambition and biological need to provide more for our families.
It’s an awkward dichotomy – a struggle of values. Like many women in my generation, I was raised to believe that if I worked “hard” enough and became a responsible human being, I could be successful in any career I chose. No one told me though that the definition of hard work turns upside down once you start having babies. No one told me how challenging it would be to nurture a family AND my career. To come back after 12 months of mat leave to find I’d have to rebuild my reputation – this time as a working mom. No one preps women for this massive change. It was all “great you’re married, when are you having babies, oh and did you get that promotion yet”? Now our stamina burns out faster than you can yell “where are the coffee pods?”
Three months ago, I came a hair away from throwing in the towel on my career. Where are my priorities? Why am I working “so hard” when I could be home with my kids? I felt torn – I could see my efforts at work paying off but felt like I was missing out on quality time with my family. I wondered, how do I be a “present” mom AND have a successful career that I enjoy? I couldn’t see how the two were possible – my values were at odds with each other. If I have to stay home with a sick kid, then I might miss something at work, if I accept that client call after 5pm, I probably won’t make it home for my kids’ bedtime. It felt like an endless cycle of guilt.
This maternal dilemma is certainly not unique to me. Many working moms with career ambition face this challenge. We love our kids, want to raise them to be awesome human beings, but also want our own identity. We want meaningful careers, where we feel valued. It’s very millennial, so I’m told.
Be your own advocate
Perhaps it is millennial. Or perhaps, we’ve reached a pivotal moment in our corporate society where we all need to re-evaluate what “working hard” really means. Maybe we ought to replace working hard with being reliable, savvy, creative, resourceful, engaging and so on. These are all characteristics of great employees – and they have nothing to do with punching in a clock or working a 9-5 job. These are the employees that genuinely care about what they do, they care about having an impact and they care very much about the team of people they work with.
These are the same people who will lose sleep before they let their team down because they know, you know, you can count on them. Even if counting on them means, letting them leave work at 4pm – guilt free – because they have daycare pick-up duty that night. Or if it means being cool with them missing out on that high-profile networking opportunity because they’re just too exhausted from endless sleepless night due to their restless teething toddler. We put so much pressure on ourselves these days and we see it in the alarming high rates of rising burnout. We all know someone who this has happened to. For many organizations, there is a direct correlation between employee retention and client retention. With that in mind, I can’t help but think it might be time to re-evaluate our expectations of corporate culture and our role in changing them.
It’s not sustainable without flexibility
I’ve learned from personal experience that employers are more willing than we realize to rethink traditional methods of work. Sometimes, as I discovered, if you take a chance, raise your hand and say: “you know what, it’s all just a bit too much” your employer might just say: “I get it. Let’s work together to find a solution”. Strong employers, like mine, are seeing this new batch of millennial 30 something parents who want effective, meaningful careers but also crave flexibility and understanding from their executive teams that family commitments are a shared responsibility among two income families.
So what does a flexible, solutions based, work culture look like?
Flexibility is different depending on the person and situation, so the solutions must, in and of themselves, also be flexible. For me, it means keeping my laptop with me at all times in case fever strikes and a child needs to be picked-up. It could also mean flexible “office hour” schedules. The latter certainly isn’t a ground breaking concept but it’s so helpful for working parents balancing the 5pm day care pick-up with client deadlines and other deliverables. Remote work is becoming the norm in many industries – after all, we live in the digital age! Our phones are practically an extension of our bodies and there is a certain level of expectation that we are accessible when we aren’t in the office (or even during office hours). Remote work is hardly a stretch for employers in most corporate industries to manage. These solutions are all possible but it takes organization on the part of the employee and understanding on the part of the employer (and sometimes the client too).
The reward will be great for those that adapt
At the end of the day, if you are a dedicated employee, understand how your role and behaviours impact your colleagues, and are committed to delivering results for your company, there’s no reason your employer shouldn’t be willing to work with you to find a flexible solution that makes sense for your situation.
Adapting our corporate working cultures to provide the right mix of flexibility parameters is not only the right approach to retaining and attracting top talent but also to ensuring a thriving business with a strong bottom line. Employers can’t afford not to adapt.
——— Michelle Coates Mather is a former Director, Strategic Communications and Public Engagement at NATIONAL Public Relations