How to Be the First Parent in the Office

GovFem_FinalMost of my female friends and colleagues are incredibly strong and ambitious. I usually take it as a given that they will achieve whatever they want, without looking back. So I was surprised when one of my girlfriends recently told me she was thinking of leaving her job because she didn’t think the environment was conducive to her having a child.

My friend is young, energetic, and awesome at her job. She also has a husband who will definitely share the responsibility of raising that child. All I could think was, “What’s holding you back!? Lean in!”

However, she explained that her department, part of a federal branch of government, is principally staffed by people below the age of 35. They travel often and, even when they’re in town, are required to go to numerous after-hours events. And because it’s a young office, there are unspoken social expectations that are difficult to sidestep. Admittedly, she’s in a tough spot.

However, there are a few ways to navigate the ‘first person in the office to have a kid’ role, whether you’re a new mom or dad. Below are four tips to help ease the transition for you and your office:

1. Know your rights (and take advantage of them!)
In the U.S., women are only granted 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually by law. However, some government organizations offer more accommodating leave packages. A few even offer discounted childcare and alternative work schedules for parents. .

Even before you have a child, you should know your rights as a parent in government. OPM offers a basic fact sheet of family leave for federal employees, but you’ll want to consult your agency or department for more specific guidelines.

Once you’re up to date, use those allowances to their fullest extent. There are two reasons for doing this.

First, it follows the same logic as using all of your vacation days. When you don’t take the time for yourself (or in this case, your family), you ultimately hurt your productivity at work and risk overstretching yourself. Don’t hurt your chances for success before you’re even out of the gate!

Second, if you’re already using your assigned privileges, you’ll be in a better place to ask for additional support when you need it. In contrast, going to your boss to ask for assistance after you’ve already discarded your legal safeguards puts you in a tough negotiating position.

2. Tell your boss what you’ll need
Yet even if you take all of your legal leave and pursue a flexible work schedule, you may need a bit more support. Like in the scenario described above, the standard hours and operating procedures of a job may prevent you from being home when you need to be. However, open communication with your manager regarding what could make your job more conducive to your family schedule can go a long way.

For instance, if your office hosts a number of events in the afternoon or evening, you might ask to be assigned prep and set-up duties, rather than having to stay late to run the show or clean up. Similarly, you may ask for a travel schedule that allows you to be home for larger blocks of time, in order to set an easier routine at home.

Whatever it is that might make your life a little easier without diminishing your contribution to the office, ask for it. Your boss will likely appreciate your forward thinking far more than you missing an obligation. Additionally, an open conversation shows your dedication to remaining successful at work, even as your personal demands change.

3. Be vocal about what’s not working
Along the same vein, if something isn’t working for you, tell your manager. Are business decisions taking place at happy hours you can’t attend? Are people communicating ineffectively on days that you work remotely? There are myriad hurdles that might come up, as you and your office adjust to your new schedule and responsibilities.

While it’s not totally up to you to fix them (don’t worry, GovFem will cover what office leaders should do in an upcoming post!), it may fall to you to call them out in the first place. This is especially true if what’s not working is business-as-usual – others may simply not notice deficiencies in old processes. Be proactive in pinpointing any issue that is preventing you from balancing your life and work.

Whatever it is, though, be sure to offer alternatives. Again, showing a willingness to find solutions that let you excel at work while taking on more personal obligations is key.

4. Frame your conversations around work
Finally, as you have these conversations about your needs and demands as a new parent, think about ways to center them around professional issues. This is important for three reasons.

First, talking about your personal life to a work colleague – especially a superior – is hard. Framing your conversation around how you can excel at work may make you more comfortable, and it makes clear that it’s a professional request.

Second, reframing the conversation may make it easier for your boss, too. Should they care that your daycare situation gets all wonky when you have to unexpectedly stay late? Probably. But if you’re talking to a colleague who doesn’t understand the dynamics of raising a child, you’re more likely to get through by using a frame of reference they are familiar with: work. Pointing out how unexpected late nights hurt performance (for example, they tire employees or make them miss details in the rush to finish up) puts the conversation in equally relatable terms.

Finally, think about your discussions as negotiations. Even when you talk about potential changes to your schedule or office culture that better suit your family responsibilities, you want the product of that conversation to be mutually beneficial for both parties. In the end, your boss wants you to be personally happy, but their job relies on their department operating at its best too. When you can show how potential office changes contribute to a more productive workforce, you’re likely to get a lot further in your “negotiation.”

Balancing the responsibilities of raising a child with an awesome career in government is definitely no easy task. But it can be a little easier if you know your rights and how to talk about them with your manager.


This article was originally posted in May 2015.

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