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Ask Lauren

Navigating the New Workplace Normal

From setting boundaries with friends and colleagues to handling the inevitable daycare shut downs, navigating our new ever-changing normal is a constant juggling act. Here, columnist Lauren Smith Brody helps readers keep their most important balls in the air—one uncertainty at a time.

Written By
Lauren Smith Brody
Illustration
Maria-Ines Gul

When my son Will was a little guy, he coined a phrase that we’ve used in our family ever since. It is “even more than so much.” As in: Will, how much ketchup would you like with your nightly chicken nuggets? “Even more than so much ketchup!” Or: Would you like Daddy to come to reading time at school? “Even more than so much!”

I have clung to the optimism of that kid-ism as we’ve managed the emotional ping-pong of the start of fall. School and covid tests; offices open, then closed, then who knows; friend plans planned and unplanned. And oh shoot, did you outgrow your sneakers? September is always madness. But this year? It’s an Even More Than So Much September.

And judging by the questions you shared about our new tenuous parenting balance, I suspect you’re feeling it too. I had a hard time writing this month’s column, I’ll confess. These questions are big and important, full of current frustrations but also hope for the future as we define our ever-evolving new normal. I hope these words help you...even more than so much.

Q: Among my friend group, I'm the one with the most flexible work schedule, and have fallen into being my group's carpool/emergency babysitter person. I'm also a single parent and time is money. Can you help me set boundaries and say no more?

A: I suppose I could get huffy and tell off these inconsiderate friends on your behalf...but I suspect there’s something more going on here than just friends taking advantage of you. It’s not that simple. You love them. You love their kids. You want to help.

I could also write you a script of what to say to draw clear boundaries...but you’ve basically done that already in the words you used in your question to me. If these are real friends, you should be able to speak to them that directly.

Instead, I think there is one additional solution here. Start asking a truckload of favors in return. Sometimes, the cure for resentment isn’t saying no to the other person, but saying yes to yourself.

So: They’ve got access to a (free) color printer? Perhaps you need some branding materials printed. Their new client might have some freelance work for you? Straight-up ask for an intro. They don’t have to work on the weekends? Send your kid over to their place. They’ve got an extra laptop and your daughter’s screen suddenly looks like a barcode? You know what to do here: Ask for it.

Either they’ll get a dose of their own medicine and wake up to their rudeness, or -- more likely -- they’ll deliver, and you’ll feel some of that time/money value flowing back your direction.

Q: The rest of my team wants to work at least some in person. But I have a young kid to protect. It feels inevitable that I'll miss out....

A: I grew up reading Dear Abby with my Honey Nut Cheerios, and then E. Jean Carroll in ELLE, and Ask Polly, and here’s a pro tip I’ve learned from the greatest advice columnists: Very often the best answer is in the question itself.

Tell your team exactly what you told me, that you have a young kid to protect and that you’re really worried that you’ll miss out by not being in the office with them. My guess is that they’ll resist that word “inevitable” and want to prove you wrong. What’s more, they’ll empathize, and they might even have some Delta worries of their own to share. Lead by example and be vulnerable for the sake of progress. We can only solve problems we can see. Make yours visible.

Of course, there’s also the chance that you work with rude toads. And the Motherhood Penalty is real.

So, whether your colleagues are wonderfully receptive or total jerks, you must also speak to your boss preemptively so you can work together to make a plan that has you dependably looped in when you’re working at different hours or a different location than the rest of your colleagues. Your vibe should be clear, thorough, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn’t purposefully screw you over. Proactive, not defensive. You are doing nothing wrong and in fact doing *so many* things right. Believe that, take a breath, and then feel free to use this template as a script for your call:

“Hi, [boss]. As everyone is figuring out their new normal, I’m gratefully working from home to keep my unvaccinated child safe. As you’ve seen over the past 18 months, it’s not easy, but I can make it work [insert example of fantastic thing you managed to pull off remotely]. So, now that most of our other colleagues are working in person, I want to propose a plan that evolves to keep me looped in with the team, [by doing weekly 1:1s, or attending a daily status meeting by Zoom, or being live and logged in for three core hours midday, etc.]. Since I’ll be working on a different schedule/location, I’ll also be able to [insert added-value thing here...examples could include bringing a fresh consumer perspective for clients, or being available at odd hours for overseas calls, whatever works]. I’m proud to work with such a collaborative team, and I’m thankful for your support.”

Then email a recap of the conversation so you have the exchange in writing.

Q: How should I handle work when my child's daycare shuts down for Covid?

A: The real question here is how to handle it when daycare shuts down for the third time in a month and suddenly there’s more grumbling than grace in your workplace.

It’s hard to believe that the government-sanctioned paid family leave for just this circumstance (FFCRA) expired at the end of 2020. Here we are, nearly a year later, needing it more than ever. Some employers have chosen to earn tax incentives to offer similar paid days off through the end of September, 2021, and some states have other provisions in place. Here’s a U.S. Dept. of Labor brief that spells it all out.

That’s the technical answer. But in reality, most working parents are left scrambling. Right now, today, talk to your employer about how to plan for exactly the scenario you describe (believe me, if you have an HR department, they have been thinking about it). And, at home, make a plan for your “backup to your backup” just in case the poop diaper hits the proverbial fan.

(Pausing here to all-caps shout for a sec: IT’S TOTALLY UNFAIR THAT THIS IS ON THE INDIVIDUAL TO SOLVE BECAUSE THAT EXACERBATES ALL KINDS OF INEQUITIES AND IS TERRIBLE FOR THE ECONOMY TOO. WE NEED PAID FAMILY LEAVE!)

I am angry, but I am also practical about childcare. You, my friend, need a “backup to your backup.” That is, you need to have TWO of the following options lined up. (A caveat: Several of these require having people in your home with your children. If that’s not comfortable for you, include that in your conversation with your employer.)

1) The most human of all resources, your co-parent, if you have one. Have a weekly Sunday-night calendar dive to agree on who’s taking which days if things go awry. Yes, even if they earn more than you.

2) A trusted family member, if you have one close by. Talk to them ahead of time -- not at 7am when it’s an awkward ask -- to make a plan for exactly such an emergency. How much notice do they need? How careful do they need to be with their own health for you to be comfortable having them stay with your unvaccinated child?

3) A subscription to a backup care service. Many smart employers have this as a benefit. Ask! Maybe you’ve got one, and if not yet, at least you’ve made the need visible.

4) Another working family that you make a pact with to provide just this coverage for each other, like an emergency nanny share. Make sure you talk about what level of risk/testing/masking you’re comfortable with.

5) A cohort of vaccinated, trusted babysitters that you share with friends. These people are not Mary Poppins. But they’re extra hands for when you’re working from home. Build the list by asking around at church, temple, preschool, virtual music class, your Zoom breastfeeding support circle. As you find people, try them out for a couple of hours on a weekend while you’re home to supervise. The good ones go on the list, and if your trusted friends are doing the same, you’ll have a few names in your phone pretty quickly.

Now, just because you have these options *doesn’t* mean you have to use them. But if you’re making a hard decision about whether or not to take time away from your paid work, options equal power. Do what’s right for you, with all choices on the table.

And for goodness sake, do everything you can to raise awareness about the need for federally protected paid family leave and to vote for politicians who prioritize it.

Q: As a longtime SAHM, I feel a real opportunity to return to work in this job market, but I also feel very vulnerable -- help?

A: This is your moment! We need you! Jump in!

Something you should know: A lot of work culture norms have shifted over the span of Covid, and for years before that, too. You should feel absolutely empowered to break a lot of the old rules, not just for your sake but for other parents’ too. For instance:

1) Do not share your old salary with interviewers. Since you are both a woman and a mom, you were likely underpaid, and there’s no need to perpetuate that inequity.

2) Your “network” is far broader than you might imagine. It may have its roots in your former colleagues from years ago, but plenty of the moms you’ve met over these years have seen firsthand how ambitious and trustworthy you are and how well you juggle. Think of your friends as colleagues. Talk frankly about money, benefits, and connections. It’s all research.

3) Negotiate for the flexibility you need. Starting at 10? Working four longer days instead of five regular ones? Companies are looking for creative solutions that allow you to simply get the job done.

4) Do not be cowed by tech stuff. If you have ever made a Doodle for the teacher appreciation breakfast baking sign-up, you can handle Slack. Ask a friend to show you.

5) The gig economy isn’t perfect (particularly if you need health insurance), but it might allow you to work on specific projects (or at limited hours) for a couple of different employers before you commit.

6) Don’t fake it til you make it. You are in a unique position as a newbie who is not a newbie in life. If systems seem wonky when you’re new on the job, speak up!

And remember that you will be joining a team in which every single other person has been through something huge -- this pandemic. We are all in a big transition to a new normal. It’s an exciting time to be a part of that.

Q: How can I navigate the guilt of sending my two year old to daycare so I can work from home all day?

A: First, know that the predictable structure and socialization of daycare is good for her. Better, probably, than being home with only erratic between-calls access to stressed-out you.

Then -- and this is probably not the advice you would expect, but -- use some of the flexibility of being at home to be extra good to yourself while you work. Wear comfortable clothes. Do a call while pacing a mile in circles around your kitchen table so you get some exercise. Eat last night’s leftovers for lunch with a fried egg on top. Use what would have been your commute time to get ahead on tomorrow’s to-do list.

That way, when your daughter gets home, you can really put your phone down, down, down for dinner, bath, and bed and realize that your working from home was a positive experience for both of you. You treated yourself kindly, and she got attention from a mom who was feeling good, not hurried or stressed. And certainly not guilty.

Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.