The pandemic has pushed millions of parents, largely women, to cut back on work, or leave their jobs altogether. This has resulted in many losses for those employees: wages, career plans and often, a sense of purpose beyond family life.
The setbacks aren’t limited to the employee, though. Employers also stand to lose a lot when parents drop out of the workforce.
Parents and caregivers, out of necessity, are the front line in the fight against the culture of overwork that is widespread. All of us – those with care responsibilities and those without – benefit from free time. We’d all be happier if we worked less, and our work productivity wouldn’t necessarily suffer, research has suggested.
Also, the act of caring for another can imbue employees with valuable skills that translate well to the workplace. Did everyone feel listened to? Were compromises made? These kinds of so-called soft skills often go overlooked in favor of technical proficiency, and that’s a mistake. Research has shown these soft skills are what can help get the job done – and done well.
Parenting and caregiving prime us for paid work
Ann Crittenden, author of “If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything: Leadership Begins At Home,” spoke to 100 working parents for her book and found that many of them felt they had become better workers because of their parenting.
“Parents bring an incredible amount of training to the workplace,” she said.
Based on these interviews, Crittenden identified a number of work-friendly skills that parents can develop through intentional parenting. They include multitasking, negotiation, the ability to listen, patience, appreciating differences, empathy and narcissist management – because who among us hasn’t dealt with an employee as petulant as a toddler?
One of the parents she spoke with was American diplomat Harold Saunders, who negotiated the peace settlement between Israel and Egypt in 1979. His wife died when his children were young, leaving him to do more hands-on parenting than he might have otherwise.
“He told me that what he learned as a parent helped him become a great negotiator,” Crittenden said.
Crittenden also discovered that Stephen Covey, the author of the bestselling business and self-help book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” got his ideas for the book from his parenting. The home is where these skills were “really learned,” as he once wrote – and Crittenden noted in her book.
Amy Henderson, co-founder and CEO of TendLab and author of “Tending: Parenthood and The Future of Work,” fell upon a similar discovery after she had her third kid.
Terrified of how being a mother of three would impact her professional life, she went in search of employed parents who would help her.
“At first, we spoke about how it is really hard, and how we don’t talk about how hard it is,” Henderson said. “There was this organic revelation that parenting was forging us, and we were growing in ways that we couldn’t otherwise possibly grow.”
Henderson spoke to 237 parents, including CEOs, nurses and computer programmers, and heard over and over that raising kids was a professional asset. The main reason, Henderson deduced through her interviews and other research she did on neuroscience and primate biology, was that parenthood made them better at relating to others.
“Parenthood can boost our emotional intelligence, our courage, and our capacity to collaborate,” she said.
Why these skills matter more than ever
Broad shifts in the economy and workforce are making relational skills more important than ever, Henderson pointed out. There has been a shift away from manufacturing toward service jobs, and many workplaces are assigning projects to teams rather than individuals.
In her book, Henderson pointed to Project Aristotle, Google’s effort to figure out why some teams succeed and others fail, which launched in 2012. The project researchers surveyed 180 teams and discovered that the psychological safety felt by members of the group was more important than their individual brilliance or dedication.
“Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive,” reads Google’s report.
“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
This is also the goal for most parents on any given Sunday afternoon.
Social sensitivity is a key ingredient for success, according to a 2008 study from psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Union College found similar results.
Parenting on a resume?
Unfortunately, caregiving’s potential to make for a better employee has yet to be widely accepted by the hiring directors and bosses. Parents and other caregivers should be proud of their hard-earned skills, but still remain aware that the wider world is only just beginning to connect the dots. Tread lightly.
“Is everybody ready to respect a parent’s experience running a pod during the pandemic? Probably not,” said Daisy Dowling, founder and CEO of Workparent and author of the forthcoming “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself and Raising Happy Kids.”
Dowling said it’s OK to mention parenthood and caregiving in the job interview process, but resist focusing too much on it and avoid it early on. Also, try to get a feel for whether or not it’s something the interviewer is interested in before diving in.
Still, while leading with the pod may not get you the job, there is some hope that using it as part of the story you tell about yourself will earn you some points.
“Parents should remember that there are 52 million (US) working parents. … Chances are really high that, of the people you interview with, someone in there was also running a pod, trying to get their child in a pod, or dealing with some other catastrophe related to child care during the pandemic,” she said.
Parents and caregivers can lead to better working conditions for all
These conversations can be awkward during the interview process – or after they got the job – as parents and caregivers contend with the reality of their responsibilities at home and at work. But uncomfortable as they may be, they can lead to positive changes for everyone, regardless of caregiving status.
By virtue of having dependents, parents force workplaces to reconsider their “ideal worker,” or someone who can work 12-hour days, always be available, and never need time off. Such expectations aren’t compatible with a good life, whether or not one has children.
“When I first started talking about how great parents can be for the workplace, we started getting pushback,” Henderson said. “What I realized is that parenthood at work is just the tip of a much bigger issue: Workplaces aren’t designed for people to be able to meaningfully care for each other, either in the office or out of the office.”
Parents fighting for flexible schedules and paid leave have changed – and will continue to change – the workplace, both in terms of policies and expectations. Unsurprisingly, paid leave is on the rise as one of the most-desired workplace benefits, for all employees.
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Before the pandemic, parents took on Ringling Bros. Circus-level juggling in order to conceal the realities of caregiving from the workplace. But now, no level of circus artistry can conceal the impact and importance of care responsibilities in our private lives, as well our professional ones. And that might not be a bad thing.
Caring is inevitable, at home and at work, and all employees stand to benefit when there is room to care. Parents and caregivers can help us get there.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.