Parenting: The professional superpower you never knew you had

Kids play in the pool

The stats about parenting’s potential impact on one’s career are sobering: More than 40% of women leave the workforce entirely after having a baby, according to the Mom Project. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review found that the longer parents are out of work for a new baby, the less likely they are to later receive promotions or advance on the leadership track. And the pandemic worsened all of this: Almost 2 million American women left the workforce, plunging the women’s labor force participation rate to a level we hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years.

The factors influencing these numbers are vast: the lack of mandated parental leave, disparate social norms around gender expectations, insufficient fertility benefits coverage, childcare deserts and the gender pay gap, among them. These have likely forced far too many parents into some tough decisions: Go back to work too soon after welcoming a baby or lose your job? Stay in a role you know you’ve outgrown for the flexibility it affords you? Pay a mortgage’s worth of daycare costs to ensure you don’t miss out on your next promotion?

Parenting life and professional life are often seen as two competing worlds—and in reality, for many, they are. They’re both demanding of our time, attention, energies and skills—all of which are finite, leading many to try to hide one world from the other. I know I’m not the only person who has conducted Zoom calls while nervously checking my baby monitor next to the laptop or pretended to listen raptly to a toddler’s story while reading my work email behind their head.

Part of me would love to quit my job and listen to that story with full attention. However, I also love being a writer and editor and am part of a generation raised with the idea that we can do it all, all at once; however, the social structures in this country haven’t quite caught up to make that a reality. Those are still fueling the pressure that causes so many to shoot low when they return to work after having a baby or raising kids, to exit the workforce altogether or to worry about how to explain those gap years on their resume to their next employer.

However, even though few would put the job title “Parent” on their resume, it’s undeniable: This is a full-time (and then some!) job. I’m a mid-career professional, and parenting is—by very, very far—the hardest job I’ve ever had. But it helps me learn, develop, grow and challenge myself every single day, just like any rewarding job should.

And like any worthwhile job, it has armed me with new skills, and continuously puts me in touch with others I never knew I had. Even though I probably won’t add these dimensions of my experience and identity to my CV any time soon, here is what my parenting skills profile would look like if I did: 

Adept at emotional regulation

A few weeks ago, I was on about hour 11 of solo parenting the three kids, and bedtime was blessedly in sight. I was changing Avery’s #2 diaper on the living room rug and she was kicking, screaming and using all her 21 pounds to impressively almost get away every other second. The TV was blaring the “Peppa Pig” theme song and Jackson was laying on the couch, sick with a sore throat, whining “Mommy” on repeat. I felt a scratch repeatedly on my head as I used all my strength to hold Avery still and heard August whisper in my ear, “Mommy, fork, mac and cheese!” Scratch, scratch, scratch on my scalp. Yup, he found that fork he had flung at dinner and was rubbing hour-old mac and cheese into my hair. Just being in the same breathing space as those children at that moment made me want to jump out of my skin.

I was grossed out, mad, wildly overstimulated, annoyed, tired and a bit sad. But nearly six years of parenting little ones has shown me those are my emotions to manage, not theirs. I wanted more than anything to chuck that fork at the wall and scream at the top of my lungs that these three little beings were on my absolute last nerve, but allowing my own emotions to be so dysregulated would cause the mirror effect in them. So, I did my best to breathe through it, finally wrapped Avery up in her diaper, extricated a fork from my hair, smiled at August, got Jackson the water he was whining for and closed the bathroom door for a split second of peace before the little fingers started poking through underneath.

Workplaces are rife with different types of people with different emotions and different capacities for managing them. One person’s bad day can quickly become an entire team’s bad day. But parents have been through the hard-fought training that has forced us to learn how to identify our emotions, own them, process them and let them go. After a day of successfully avoiding an explosion of anger at little people who seem custom-built to push our buttons, Suzy in Accounting’s bad attitude would seem like a piece of cake.

Experience managing multiple generations

There are currently five generations in the workforce, and they all want something different. Workers and especially those vying for leadership need to be attuned to those nuances—know where employees in each generation are coming from, the common experiences that have shaped them, the skills that set them apart. Parents of multiples could kill it here. 

I’ve found that one of the hardest things about having more than one child is trying to give them each the attention they need when they’re at such different stages and need competing things from me and Ashlee. When August and Avery were infants, they needed to constantly be held and have us creatively soothe their screaming, while Jackson was in a phase of smashing cars as loud as could be. As the twins got older, they needed hands-on encouragement to absorb new colors and words and practice their first steps, while Jackson was knee-deep in imaginative play. Now, the almost-6-year-old needs a patient hand to guide him through reading his first books while August is hell-bent on exploring everything he can and Avery just wants to be cuddled.

We had to quickly get comfortable with the idea that someone will also be lacking in getting the attention they want. But to even keep two out of three somewhat happy at a time, we’ve learned that we have to really know where they’re coming from at this age: what they’re going through developmentally, what interests them and why, what challenges them and why. Not to mention the experience of their birth order, and they all fit those stereotypes to a T: Jackson, the oldest, is highly sensitive and needs a lot of one-on-one attention. The middle child (by two minutes), August, is that wild second-born who’s as independent as he is adventurous. And the baby, Avery, is used to soaking in the attention but has a persistent, stubborn streak.

Like any workplace, our house is full of people of different ages and experiences, and it’s up to me and Ashlee to learn what makes each of those people tick and why, so we can do our best to have them work peaceably together.

Kids sit in a stroller

Capacity for agility

I work in the HR space, where the word “agility” is increasingly ubiquitous, especially with post-pandemic shifts in work and the dawn of the AI age. Workers today need to be ready to learn new skills, hop on different projects, prioritize and reprioritize as conditions change—in other words, a normal day in parenting.

With three young kids, especially when I’m by myself, I sometimes feel like a server at a restaurant with a line out the door, a fire in the kitchen and a roof that just collapsed on all my patrons. I’m constantly switching tasks, and the skills it takes to get them done: Deliver morning waters and milks, make breakfast, stop a fight, potty break, soothe a toddler, make sure they’re doing something educational, stop a fight, get snacks, get them out the door together for a walk where they all run three different directions for 20 minutes, potty break, stop a fight, manage a big-kid meltdown, bargain for them to eat lunch … and on it goes.

I once read there’s an actual term called “task-switching” that refers to frequently hopping from project to project and utilizing different cognitive strengths to do so, which can certainly help parents get through the day but is also known for sapping your energy.

Lead with empathy

The best bosses I’ve had are those who put empathy at the forefront of any decision they make for the team. For most parents, that’s a given.

My kids drive me crazy just about every minute of every day—we just returned from a dinner at Olive Garden where nearly everyone was covered in sauce and tears by the end, so this cannot be emphasized enough—but Ashlee and I still love them through every minute. And we try to show that in our parenting.

Last week, Avery was having a major meltdown every time I put her down when I was in the backyard so I had to just hoist her up on my hip and weed whack one-handed. Like a leader has to hit their goals without leaving any team member behind, parents have to get done what we have to get done while always considering our kids first. We listen to endless stories and answer inane questions with as much precision and care as we can—Jackson recently was curious about colonial-era clothes-washing processes and lately has been wanting to discuss the business model of his future pumpkin-carving business. We’re often tired and sick of talking, but like any good business leader, parents have to sometimes put on a happy face and show their team that they matter—because they do.

We make decisions with other people’s interests at the heart. We make sacrifices and we make mistakes. But we try, and then we try again. It’s what you do for any job and any team you love.

In my view, parents are just about the best damn employees any organization would be lucky to have, and I think modern employers may need us more than they, and us, realize. While some may feel ashamed about “just” being a stay-at-home parent or making career choices to spend more time with their family, I hope we one day get to the point where parenting isn’t viewed as a career hindrance—but rather as a professional superpower.

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