I once had a conversation with a boss about a big position I hoped she might be grooming me for.
She ticked off several strengths of mine. Then she broke my heart.
"You're pretty good at juggling work and family."
As she leaned on the word pretty, the walls closed in. I stared at her, thinking: Are you kidding me?
It bugged me even more later, as I commuted home. I thought about all of the parenting duties I offloaded to my husband, from the unplanned pediatrician sick visits to the regular shifts working the chaotic drop-off at my son's school, because he had a more flexible workplace. I thought of all the deadlines I met at night, on my kids' time.
I fantasized about what I wish I'd said: "I'm amazing at juggling work and family. And so is every working parent I know."
We're magicians, actually.
The grocery grabbing after work, while still in heels. (And some days, when there's nothing to make for lunch, the grabbed bagel before school to stand in as lunch. Shhh.)
The SignUpGeniuses for seven different school events done on your iPhone mid-commute because otherwise they will get lost in a slew of emails.
The making sure the kid has black pants and a white shirt for the spring concert. Then the realization that the black pants don't fit and now you have to run around to multiple Gaps after work to hunt for a size up. (Which you won't find, because every mom within three states needs a white shirt and dark pants for a spring concert.)
The only thing I've learned in nearly 15 years of so-called juggling -- which feels nothing like juggling but more like playing whack-a-mole with a blindfold on -- is this: Some bosses get it, and some don't. And it's not always the ones you would think.
It's not a male or female thing. It's not a parent or not parent thing. It's not even a driven, exacting boss thing. I've had managers who were truly demanding and heaped work on me, but if I said "My son is making a horrible croup sound and I need to run him to the doctor," they'd wave me off to tend to my sick kid. They'd even share their own tales of barking-child woe, letting me know we're all in this parenting thing together.
My friends tell similar stories -- of the managers who get it, and those who mommy track you in the most subtle ways. Scheduling staff meetings over after-work beers, not during the 9-to-5 when you have child care. Not sending you on a work trip because they wouldn't want you to be away from your baby, despite your assurances that really, you're fine with that. Piling work on you during the third trimester to make up for all the time you'll be off. Then dinging you on your merit increase or bonus because you were on maternity leave part of the year.
You slacker -- birthing a child, then lazing around with a newborn for 12 (partly unpaid) weeks!
Give me the tough boss who understands and supports working parents over the easier one who instructs you to take a vacation day if you'll be two hours late because it's reading celebration morning at your child's school. Or who declares, "You're such a good mom," as if it's a blemish on your work record.
Family-friendly policies such as paid parental leave, subsidized child care and flexible workdays are essential. More companies including Starbucks, Spotify, American Express and Estée Lauder, provide paid leave. California, New York, Washington and Washington, D.C., have passed laws mandating some paid parental leave. We need federal law to extend this fundamental right to all parents.
But the everyday stuff matters just as much to my mental health. Day in, day out: Is there flexibility? Do they trust you to get it done and not micromanage your time? Here's a clue that you're not in a family-friendly workplace: You know it will go over better if you say you have a doctor's appointment than your child does.
In my first job, before I had kids, I had a boss who was a brilliant editor/working mom. She put everything into her job every day. She modeled so much for me: Intelligence, perseverance, integrity, confidence, style. But even more, she showed me that you could have a big job and be the kind of parent you want to be. Every night, at 6 or even a bit before, she grabbed her bag and went home to her kids. If they called during the day, no matter what she was doing, she took the call.
She set an example for me, before I even realized I was looking for one. And she established a tone for our entire office. Because she left at a reasonable time, the other moms on the staff felt free to do the same. And, bonus, so did those of us without kids. That manager said louder and clearer than any policy could: Come, do excellent work from 10-6 with a nice lunch break, then go have a life. Look for an apartment, meet your roommate to go for a run, watch "Melrose Place" (this was the early '90s). Be with your kiddos if you have them. Live.
I didn't get the big job dangled before me in that infuriating discussion of my ability to balance. Nobody did. So maybe my meh juggling didn't matter. But the comment, and what it represented, stayed with me, reminding me of that classic advice about what to do when you're dating a guy who tells you he cheated on his last two girlfriends: "When he tells you who he is, listen."
We can't always choose the people we work for or the people we work with. In many hourly jobs, the manager changes with the shift. Even in the corporate world, departments are restructured and chains of command tweaked every other quarter.
But some managers and colleagues do tell you what they are. You can't change them. You can pay attention.
Do they seem to understand that managing a household with kids is messy? It's unpredictable, even if you're lucky enough to have reliable child care and a supportive partner. The school nurse will call. The sitter will get the flu. The teacher won't have the permission slip, even though you sent it in the backpack, and you'll have to email permission. You'll find the permission slip later that night, right in the backpack where you put it. Or on the kitchen counter. Whoops.
I'm self-employed these days, which means I work for many people, not one. Still, I'm paying a lot of attention to who I do work for, because these are the hours of my life. I don't want to team up with you if I can't say "Kids are off today" when my sons are yelling in the background. When your money comes from many different streams, it's easier to take that stand. It's much, much harder if you're making a salary from just one job. And it's near impossible if you're the sole breadwinner in your family.
A lot of experts insist that we determine our own happiness. And we do -- to a point. But if someone, or the work culture at large, makes you anxious about your ability to juggle work and parenting, the roles you're putting the most hours and the most heart into, then they have the power to make you miserable. To make you question yourself. To take away your happiness.
But you can take it back.
For anyone who has done a bazillion things at work and a bazillion and one things at home. Who has worked while sleep-deprived, after a night at the ER with an asthmatic child or a sick parent. Worked while worried about a child's health issue or their frenemy at school. Worked with a flooded basement, arranging emergency plumbers on the walk from the train to the morning meeting.
You're amazing at balancing work and family.
Some managers are only PRETTY good at recognizing that. Don't you ever forget it.
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Lombardi is a writer/editor and the co-author of "What the Yuck?! The Freaky & Fabulous Truth About Your Body."