Secret Parenting: My Positive Experience And Tips To Improve Work-Life Balance

A couple of days ago I came across this interesting article on work-life balance by economist Emily Oster, calling out the phenomenon of secret parenting. Oster coined the definition as the unhealthy habit - often forced by the environment more than personal values - of hiding family commitments and restrictions on the workplace. In other words, pretending you don't have children or relationships to take care of, to release the impression your availability at work isn't affected.

Now, if you have ever read my blog entries, you are very well aware this is not one of my issues. However, I cannot take all credit for it. Truth is, my husband and I made a conscious decision to move from Italy to Finland exactly to pursue our dream life, enjoying the Nordic work-life balance atmosphere. Being a mother is part of my life purpose, but even when I was 20 I was very well aware I had some non-negotiable terms when it came to having a family or not. Coming from a retrograde country in terms of gender equality and in work-life balance, I was attracted to the Nordic working culture. In one of my first working experiences, I was also fortunate enough to end up in an environment that encouraged its employees to take good care of their family. This positive experience, along with the contrast of other people's experiences abroad, left me wondering what concrete elements influenced positively my work-life balance and what advice I can draw for others to recreate this great mojo.

Policies

Finland's great family policies hugely contributed to draw an excellent baseline. I am talking of long parental leave for both mothers and fathers, single parents' support systems, child benefits, right to cut on working hours. On top of that, unions are so powerful that no employer can even dream of making pressure on someone's potential to exercise their rights in this context. No matter their location, single companies can adopt several of these policies and create a favourable environment for their employees. It can seem a scary investment, but one that greatly pays off in terms of attracting and retaining talent. Some examples:

  • Paid parental leave, for both mothers and fathers, biological or adopted children.
  • Flexitime and possibility to work from home. Here in Finland many employers even pay for the home internet connection, a small contribution yet a clear statement that working from home is acceptable.
  • Paid short leaves (2-3 days) if a child is sick and cannot attend school or daycare.

Managers leading by example

Leaders set the example. The company should encourage and create favourable conditions for managers (of both genders) to take parental leaves and holidays. One of the most powerful examples for me was witnessing my supervisor at the time, the company's CTO, taking a long paternity leave and then cutting his working hours to part-time to spend more time with his newborn children. That sets the bar, doesn't it. In the same company, many top-rank managers took long parental leaves. In the same way, they often mentioned their children in conversations, maybe dropped a funny family pic in their presentation slides, rescheduled meetings with the official reason they had a school recital to attend, or delegated tasks because it was affecting family commitments. When I leaded my own team, I was extremely mindful of this. I did the very same. I made sure to rarely reply to emails at unholy hours. I tried to spread the gospel that having a life outside of work was normal, acceptable, due.

Family-friendly office

Making small changes in the office life can send a powerful message. One of my husband's workplaces made a point of extending the invitation to selected office parties to the whole family and even planned children activities for the young guests. Another idea was having a "take your child to work"-day every year. I regularly witnessed colleagues bringing their kids to the office, as daycare was closed or simply because they wanted to have a special day with mommy or daddy. I fondly remember my 5 year old daughter visiting my office. I put her to "work" asking her to copy a page of text on a laptop. She felt so important! Cute.
Do you have a global chat or Workplace? Set up channels to share family news, events, or information. In one my past workplaces, it was customary to announce a birth or adoption in the global channel. We also had a specific flow for family topics, where we would ask advice, exchange tips, sell or lend each other baby items. There are plenty of simple ways to integrate employees' family life into working life.
Would you rather have burnt out employees who live under the awful pressure of hiding a second life, or happy balanced people who feel appreciated, accepted, and whole?

Self-commitment

Last but not least, it's a personal commitment. Despite all the favourable conditions, the impostor sindrome is out there to get me and I regularly find myself struggling to balance the two worlds. We are often guilty of putting pressure on ourselves - men and women alike. I have assessed long ago what my own priorities are, yet it's a beneficial exercise to remind myself on a regular basis. Prioritisation helps me a lot. When I get an invitation to a meeting that overlaps with daycare pick-up, I immediately start questioning what's the best action. I take a deep breath and evaluate if I can reschedule it to a more favourable time. Sometime it's simply not possible, but 95% of the times is. I rarely have encountered shock or reprisal when I took a stand, and when I did I reminded myself that people come with a different set of motivations and expectations. I grew so bold in my conviction that I have started choosing my workplaces based on how their family policies are (a luxury not everyone has, I know).

There is plenty of evidence out there that productivity is boosted by a good work-life balance. Beside being the right thing to do, I strongly believe this is a smart long-term investment for businesses. What do you think about this, and what will you change in your workplace or attitude? Leave me a comment below.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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