The first hint that there might be trouble ahead was at the job interview. It was a position I really wanted, and the top boss—a woman in her late 30s who was new to the job herself—asked if I had kids, in the most chatty and casual way. “I have two kids, teenagers,” I told her. “Good!” she said. She leaned in and said in a conspiratorial not-quite-whisper: “New parents take so much time off work—all those pediatrician appointments. And yours are out of elementary school, right?” It was clear she wasn’t quite sure to which age group that corresponded. I nodded. “All those school parties, am I right? And supervising field trips and, I don’t know, something called Spirit Day. And Halloween—don’t get me started on taking time off work for trick-or-treating.
Now, all of this was obnoxious and possibly even illegal, but have I mentioned that I really, really wanted this job? I’d been in my current position for a dozen years and was chomping for a change—plus, I’d always been good at navigating the various peaks and valleys at work, and I figured I could handle this as well. So I nodded sympathetically, not mentioning all the years I’d taken off October 31st, as well as my kids’ birthdays and the annual school field day, and thought, Well, if she hasn’t considered all the college visits I’ll be doing in a couple of years, so be it!
Working for someone who doesn’t have kids, doesn’t like kids, and in fact, doesn’t seem to know any kids was a challenge. Especially after years at a workplace where many of the senior people had families, and everyone was treated like grown-ups who would get their work done, even if they had to come in late next Tuesday because it was time for their kid’s annual check-up, or they had to suddenly leave because the sitter was throwing up. (The same consideration was given to the kid-free staffers who wanted to come in late after flying in from a visit with their parents.) We were in it together; we covered for each other like human grown-ups should. And the openness about the fact that our real lives sometimes bumped up against work started at the top.
At this new job, with this new boss, it was a different story. She was smart and creative with a vision for the company, but overall, she was a pretty lousy manager, especially when it came to anything that involved parenting. When it was one of her own appointments with her wellness coach or meditation specialist, she gaily waved at us as she headed out the door. But when someone took a few hours off for a pediatrician appointment, she would berate them publicly or snipe about them behind their backs. “Does your kid even have a fever?” she would ask. “How sick is he, really?” When it came to taking time off for our own health appointments, she didn’t have an issue—it was all about the kids.
So the parents on the staff adapted. Meaning, we went underground. When we had to take our kids to the doc, we dissembled (OK, lied) and said we ourselves had an appointment with the gyno/acupuncturist/physical therapist/fill in the blank. When we had a parent-teacher conference, or a school birthday party, we invented some other reason for leaving early (damn, another migraine!). Or we just snuck out and hoped she didn’t notice. And we didn’t talk about our kids and their wonderfulness (or not-ness) in her presence. Instead, we’d gather for lunch regularly in the conference room to talk parentese—and when new staffers started, if they were moms or dads we’d give them the skinny.
Looking back, I’m not sure this was the right tactic; maybe we should have banded together and agreed to be more upfront about the reality of our lives, and dealt with the fallout. But at the time, the fallout (the bitching, the undercutting or backhanded comments) seemed too unpleasant and risky. And besides, we kind of liked our secret society of moms and dads—we were comrades-in-arms, bonding over the reality of potty-training and late-night fevers and class schedules, and all the other things that our boss would never experience: the things that made our particular lives challenging and rich.
After a few years, I moved on to another job. I’ve always been easygoing with the moms and dads on my staffs, but working for someone who just didn’t get the realities of parenthood—the bleary insanity of the early years, the crazy juggling of the school years—sharpened my resolve to make sure that I always had my staffers’ backs, no matter what kind of issue they were managing. It makes for a better workplace, all around.
Upon further reflection, I wonder if my former manager was afraid that the moms and dads would start slacking off, and if I worked for someone like her again, I’d take the time to explain the truth about working parents: All of that juggling and creative scheduling, the improvising and quick shifts that parents have to learn how to do? It translates into damn skilled workers. We might read a report at 5 a.m. while nursing our baby or answer emails from the pediatrician’s waiting room while the kids are playing with the toys, but we get the job done.