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Letting your mom (or dad) flag fly at work

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At a networking function last week, I mentioned to someone that I was just returning to work after being on maternity leave. She responded by commenting reassuringly that I didn’t look like I had just had a baby. I thanked her, and while I did feel somehow proud of the fact that I fit into my pre-maternity pants again, I still left the interaction wondering: Why do we consider it a compliment to have erased the physical signs of giving birth? 

In an age where the diversity and inclusion mantra is “bring your whole self to work” and many organizations have taken positive steps in that direction, it seems that many parents, mothers especially, still feel like they’ve got to minimize a pretty important aspect of who that whole self is. In a recent article, Emily Oster, economics professor and author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, calls out a phenomenon she calls “secret parenting:” “The general sense is that everyone should adopt the polite fiction that after the first several months of leave, the child disappears into a void from which he or she emerges for viewing and discussing only during nonworking hours.”

In many cases, mothers fear that talking about their obligations as parents (perhaps daycare pickups at first, and sports or performance events later on) will lead to the perception that they’re less committed to their job than their non-parent peers, causing them to get passed over for assignments and promotions. And in some cases parenthood can have a more immediate negative impact on women’s careers, even before a baby is born. Nike recently came under fire for not guaranteeing a salary to female athletes during pregnancy or after childbirth, leading many to conceal their pregnancies for as long as possible. After the backlash, Nike changed their approach so that athletes are not penalized financially for pregnancy, though it’s unclear whether these protections are being codified into contracts.

Oster encourages parents to “fight the culture that encourages secret parenting by…not parenting secretly.” Parents certainly have a role to play in normalizing the idea that one can be a parent and still be successful in a career, but eliminating the stigma only works if companies do their part as well. We spend a lot of time touting brand humanity as a competitive advantage, but perhaps we need to start by letting the humans be human too. Companies put laudable diversity and inclusion initiatives into place but tend to reward and promote those who put their own lives aside, skipping bedtimes, date nights and social lives for the good of the business. The pressure so many employees feel to put work above all else is why this Linkedin post went viral, a leader finding it necessary to remind his team that they “should never feel horrible about being a human being.”

Even if most companies have good intentions, the way they reward employees has to catch up. Encouraging and rewarding employees for having a life outside of work creates a more engaged, loyal and productive workforce, and probably means more cute baby pictures around the office. Sounds like a win-win.

Holly Mourgues