Being ‘Always On’ Has Reached Its Limits. For Parents, It’s Time to Reset.

What crisis-acquired habits should working parents break? Daisy Dowling author of “Workparent” weighs in.,

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— Daisy Dowling, the author of “Workparent”


[In Her Words is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]

With vaccine rates inching upward in the United States, and state Covid-related restrictions relaxing, more and more companies are telling employees to prepare to return to the office. But that puts millions of parents in a bind — yet again.

The crisis of the past year has thrown into sharp relief what does and doesn’t work for families. Many parents who put up with long commutes or inflexible schedules before the chaos of 2020 may no longer be willing or able to do so. It’s overwhelming, but also presents an opportunity to rethink longstanding arrangements that have been stretched and tested beyond all reason.

Navigating such crucibles is Daisy Dowling’s specialty. Ms. Dowling ran talent and leadership development at Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Blackstone before launching her own executive coaching consultancy.

She is also the author of the book “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids,” which was published in May.

Ms. Dowling finished her book at home in New York City while managing distance learning for her two daughters, both under 10, and fielding calls from clients who themselves were struggling under the strain of the pandemic. A bench at the foot of her bed doubled as a makeshift home office.

In Her Words recently spoke with Ms. Dowling by Zoom to understand how to regain some of what we lost during the pandemic, and the crisis-acquired habits we all need to break.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

What has the pandemic been like for you?

There’s a coaching technique I use a lot with my clients: “future anchor.” It’s a positive vision of where the client wants to be personally and professionally at a certain point in the years ahead.

If I think about the full catastrophe of being a working parent in this pandemic, I’ll feel overwhelmed; incapable; my to-do list is too long. Instead, I had to look ahead and say, “Five years from now, here’s where I want my career to have evolved to, and here’s the kind of relationship I want to have with my kids.” If you can “future anchor,” it makes a lot of the strain and pressure you’re going through feel like it’s serving a purpose. You have to feel like you’re making progress toward a goal.

Did anything surprise you about the way working parents reacted to the upheaval of the pandemic?

I was struck by how incredibly hard people held on to their past work habits, and to professional and personal identities that no longer held true in a crisis situation. People would say, especially in the beginning, “I feel really unprofessional when a child walks into my Zoom background. How do I handle that?” I would say, “Well, we’re in a wartime experience here!” It was a surprise to me that even under the worst possible circumstances, each and every one of us was holding on tight — in a really well-intentioned way — to a set of habits and identities that needed to change.

That’s important as we think about pivoting to the future. People need to think as expansively as possible about what’s going to work — as opposed to thinking, “Well, this is how I used to do it in 2019” or “This is what my boss expects.”

A lot of bosses are juggling work and family life as well. How can people telegraph support at the managerial level for issues they understand on a personal level?

Sometimes it’s as simple as including references to working parenthood in town halls, blast emails, team meetings — just normalizing what’s going on. Nonverbal symbols can be powerful too: When I talk to senior executives on Zoom who ask how they can be supportive of working parents, I’m scanning their background for some visual cue that says “I’ve got a life outside the office” or “I’m dealing with caregiving too” — a photo, a kid’s toy, whatever. Organizations also need to think about sponsoring working parent networks or resource groups.

The strains on working parents go far beyond any single family or organization — these issues are systemic. The Biden administration has proposed a $1.8 trillion economic package that includes paid federal leave, universal kindergarten and child care subsidies. How should working parents think about these potential structural changes?

I’m super excited about the potential for a lot of the proposed legislation; but let’s make that legislation a lived change and not just a legal change.

On an individual basis, we all need to start bringing forward what we want and who we are, and planting that into the conversation. Something like national paid leave that’s available to everyone is a clear working parent win, but if you come back from your leave — however long and well-paid it is — and feel like you have no working parent mentors, and you don’t feel you have permission to talk about work-life issues with your manager or other senior people, and you’re working 18 hours a day and you don’t see any flexibility, we’re not going to make this the movement it can and should be.

Which pandemic-acquired habits should we unlearn first?

Two really important things: First, the “always on” mentality has reached crisis proportions. We are so committed to the idea of always being on and available to our families and to our work that we can’t draw any distinction between the two. We’re just sort of constantly at a boil. If your mind is constantly on your kids, you’re not going to be the person with the most creative comment in the meeting. Your kids don’t want you distracted either. The No. 1 thing here is to unlearn work-life integration. You can be one person, with two distinct roles. We have to learn how to draw those boundaries.

The other thing that we really need to unlearn is isolation. A lot of working parents have gotten into the habit of not talking to other working parents who can advise and support them, who provide that practical information and camaraderie. One of my standard questions with new coachees — in addition to, “When’s the last time you had a day off?” — is, “How many other working parents are you talking to? Who’s in your phone-a-friend network? What does that look like? And what kind of conversations are you having with them?”

If you could say, “Today I’m going to spend an hour with my kids and not think about work, and I’ll talk to another colleague with kids who will give me some advice and tell me that yes, it does get easier” — those two things are huge.

In your book, you talk about the importance of “owning your narrative” as a working parent. How can working parents who had to pause or drastically alter careers during the pandemic frame their story in a way that feels empowering?

Think about how you want to be known. If somebody doesn’t know you well, and you think there’s a risk of misperception, don’t hang back. Lead with something like: “I am a hardworking, committed professional. My career is very important to me. Because of the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances of the pandemic, and because my children happen to be very young or have particular needs, I have temporarily had to put my focus and my energy on them. But now I’m completely committed to getting back into the work force and look forward to doing X with your organization.” Just be bold about it. It’s not awkward unless you make it awkward.


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