No, Working Parents Aren’t Wusses

I’ve got a confession to make: I used to hate working parents.

Okay, maybe hate is a strong word, but I at least strongly disliked them. Every time I got a call in from a parent staying home, coming in late, or leaving early, it grated on me. It usually meant more work for me and their co-workers. When I was working for a place that needed 24/7 coverage, it meant calling someone in or working someone out of position. When I didn’t, it meant that things didn’t happen that were critical needs.

At places where it was logistically possible, we made it work as best we could but it wasn’t 100 percent. How could you be at 100 percent when you have a kid sick at home or unexpectedly released from school? In places we couldn’t, I stewed.

Then I got over it.

Working parents are soft?

What brought back this memory was a post on The Wall Street Journal blog The Juggle that talked about the “wussification” of parents. It says:

One big subset of whiners and worriers are parents, who some say act as babyish as their wards, placing “baby-on-board” signs on their minivans and using helmets for every conceivable activity.  Some of the wimpiest complainers of all, according to some Juggle commenters, are working parents, who find every opportunity to gripe about how tough their juggles are and how demanding parenting is. “Suck it up,” some unsympathetic readers have said.

Consider me one of those people who used to say “Suck it up!” I got tired of seeing rolling eyes when I talked about how I had an exhausting night or weekend once in a while. “Oh, you had an exhausting night last night?” they would say. “Try waking up five times a night with a baby crying!”

With the proliferation of technological advances and the availability of convenience, the battle between working parents and people who believed that “walking to school uphill in the snow (both ways too!) is good for you” was on full bore.

Parents misunderstood

Of course, as I continued working, I met many parents that didn’t grate on me. In fact, what knocked me off the hating working parents bandwagon was an employee that I didn’t know had kids. He had worked at our company for six months before I figured it out and then it was by accident.

He told me I wouldn’t know because he is never forced to take off time unexpectedly (he had family whom he could depend on and good child care) and when he did take off time, he knew it at least several weeks ahead of time and would schedule it. And I encountered other stories like this where parents minimized the impact on the workplace as best as they could. Some were obviously more successful than others, and certainly things came up that were out of their control.

But where I started to differentiate was between chronic working parent abusers and working parents who gave it their best effort. Whenever anyone who doesn’t have kids starts thinking about working parents, their mind immediately goes to the group of abusers. People who keep their kids in their back pocket as a ready made excuse for not ever working late, putting in any extra effort or even if they just want to get some time away from work without getting approval.

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That’s not fair.

Rethinking parenting-workforce implications

Of course, everyone gets nervous if you start talking about cracking down on working parents who abuse the system. I’ve had other HR people tell me you can’t even ask questions if a parent tells you it’s about their kid. Really? Because asking questions has only resulted in me understanding the situation better and, in many cases, encouraging them to reschedule workload to better deal with it.

For those who are nervous about cracking down on abuses though, it is time to reward people who don’t abuse the system. That’s what changed my mind in the long term. Ultimately, working parents who abuse the system don’t game it as well as they think they do.

Having your things in order as a parent isn’t circumstantial. Bad stuff happens, I get that. I’ve rewarded people while they’ve been on medical leave for child issues. Serious, life changing things too.

Most of the parents I’ve dealt with aren’t wusses. They work as hard as anybody. There are slackers among them of course but that is true for every conceivable demographic.

But asking the questions, being flexible and rewarding people who don’t game the system? That’s how you keep the good working parents on your payroll and keep the haters second guessing themselves.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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