How many times have you lied at work to cover up the fact you needed to take care of your kids?
Maybe it was the time you begged off a conference call to "plug in your laptop" when in fact your toddler sauntered into the room. Maybe it was when your kid was home sick from school but you told your boss it was you who was ill. Or maybe it was when you claimed you needed to reschedule a meeting because of a professional conflict rather than an unmissable music recital.
Most professionals who are parents will instantly recognize these scenarios. You can take comfort in knowing you're nowhere near alone.
Economist Emily Oster talked to a whole lot of working parents when she researched Cribsheet, her new book about evidence-based parenting (her earlier book Expecting Better was my personal favorite pregnancy book by miles; I now harass pregnant friends to read it).
"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," she wrote recently in The Atlantic. "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."
It's high time for this "secret parenting" to stop, Oster argues.
The problem of "secret parenting"
Oster claims this pattern of polite deception isn't just an undue burden on working parents--concocting excuses and keeping them straight consumes mental and emotional resources that could be better spent elsewhere--but that it also keeps us from having realistic conversations about how to design workplaces that work well for all employees.
If everyone is going around pretending not to break a sweat juggling work and family under a firm's current policies, then there is not going to be awareness or will to change them for the better. That's bad for parents, but it's also bad for employers. "Inflexibility around child care is, quite simply, going to cost firms valuable workers," Oster insists.
Plus, everyone's pretending they don't have kids sends a toxic message to junior employees thinking of starting families about the sort of priorities their employer expects them to have. If you're doing a lot of secret parenting, you're communicating that you think your team should value work over family, or at least pretend to, even if that's not the message you intend to send.
The easiest, best change bosses can make today
Thankfully, unlike getting paid parental leave through our deadbeat Congress, the solution to this subtle problem holding parents back at work (especially women, who still do the majority of caring) is dead simple. Just talk about your kids more at the office. But this change has to start at the top.
"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," recalls Oster, who says she was "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."
Junior employees such as Oster at the time are generally too insecure at work to unilaterally start blabbing on about their kid's softball game or sore throat unless more senior folks take the lead. Those higher up the ladder don't experience as much pressure to prove their commitment to work, so it's up to them to model a different approach.
It's a change Oster personally made as she advanced in her academic career. "Two kids in, I'm now a tenured full professor," she reports. "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.'"
She adds, "I particularly try to say things like that around more junior colleagues, those who might wonder whether it is OK for them to have these constraints."
This openness normalizes having both caring responsibilities and a career and opens up conversations about simple accommodations organizations can make to help out parents, such as avoiding meetings that clash with kids' early bedtimes or minimizing travel.
Bosses with kids, why not follow Oster's lead? Simply by putting up pictures of your children in your office and not keeping it a secret when you reschedule something to be with your little ones, you can make an easy but impactful change to your company culture. More junior parents and parents-to-be on your team will thank you.