The Case for Telling Your Employer How Bad Your Childcare Situation Is Right Now

work and chilcare diane keaton from baby boom

Last month you kept your kid home because of a sore throat. Before that, your child had to miss a week of school because of a potential exposure. And then this month there was the Omicron surge, which meant delayed starts and remote learning. For working parents, it can feel damn near impossible to keep up with the non-stop logistics and shifting demands of parenting during a pandemic. And when your childcare arrangements are a crapshoot at best, you may wonder—should I tell my boss how crappy my situation is right now? Especially for those parents who are still working from home, do you really need to fill your employer in?

(FWIW—I’m currently writing this story with my toddler at home, thanks to his school’s very strict sick policy in reaction to Omicron, so yeah, I get it.)

The case for transparency

Should you tell your boss every time you have a childcare hiccup? (Which, let’s be honest, is practically a weekly occurrence at this point.)

“I think the answer really depends,” says Georgene Huang, CEO & Co-Founder of Fairygodboss, a job search site that specializes in helping women find work. “If you are sure that the disruption your childcare situation causes will be severe, it’s probably in your best interest to be transparent with your employer about what is going on at home,” she adds.

The main reason for this is that it will keep your sanity intact (because trying to work while streaming Encanto on repeat and doling out goldfish every five minutes is really not possible.) But, as Huang also points out, if your work will be impacted and your employer notices that you’re less productive or not available during certain hours of the day, they may assume the worst (like you’re slacking off or looking for a new job).

Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward, a nonprofit organization that empowers stay-at-home mothers and other caregivers to restart their professional careers agrees: “I generally think it's always better to be more transparent.” But, the career expert notes, how you say it matters.

The working mom script

“You have to know the difference between your mom friends who you’re unloading to and having a conversation with your boss about what you need,” Forman advises. So before speaking to your boss or manager, be clear in your mind about what exactly your goals are. “It’s always better when you can go into those situations with a clear directive, like ‘here’s the situation and here’s what I need.’”

In other words, do stay matter of fact about your situation. Don’t vent to your employer about your school’s lack of mask policy or go into details about your kid’s stomach bug.

“I think that sometimes [women] feel the need to justify it, but I really don't think anybody has anything to apologize for right now,” adds Forman. “This is so beyond any of our individual faults!”

Here’s what that conversation might look like: “My child is home sick today and needs my help, so I’m afraid that I won’t be able to work today.” Or if you’re able to do some work: “My child is home quarantining right now but is fine and I can keep them entertained for a period of the day. I’ll be able to attend these meetings but not these ones. I have reached out to these people to cover for me. I will let you know if things get more disruptive than that.”

Of course, exactly how you talk to your boss will depend on your company’s culture. For some employees, for example, there may be the option to work in the evenings, whereas that might not be possible for others. Note: This is also a good time to review the HR handbook to find out what your company’s paid leave policies are.

Support beyond the home

“We have treated childcare in America like an individual problem that needs to be solved,” says Forman. “When instead it is a shared social responsibility to raise the next generation of citizens and taxpayers.” And while this has been an issue for years, the pandemic has exacerbated an already untenable situation, making it even more difficult for working parents to get the help they need.

But in these weird pandemic times, it’s not enough for working moms to ask for support at work.

“It’s difficult for a lot of us to ask for the help that we need, but it’s important to also think about what support you need at home,” advises Forman. “There’s a lot of research that shows that in heterosexual couples, it’s moms who tend to come home early, take the time off work or reschedule their commitments.” Sound familiar? The career expert suggests parents sit down and figure out how to work together as a team when faced with a childcare disruption, and also to reach out for other support in your family (hello, grandparents).

The motherhood penalty

But what about the repercussions of all this time away from work or being available at unreliable hours?

“There is a documented ‘motherhood penalty’ even in normal times because working moms are assumed to be less committed, available and ambitious with respect to their careers,” cautions Huang. “However, the current reality is such that many parents will face disruptions so severe (potentially) that they have no choice but to disclose their unavailability and hope their employer is patient and humane.”

And here’s some good news: Both career experts note that it’s a job-seeker’s market right now. “An employer may not be able to replace anyone and train them quickly so the labor market will also hopefully provide working moms some support because an unhappy or punitive employer will not have great options,” adds Huang.

And remember, you’re not alone

The biggest takeaway? Ask for help. Whether that’s from family members, teammates or your manager. “It’s hard because everyone is so tired right now. But I think it's always better to be upfront and ask for the support that you need. People will be able to provide it or they won't, but it's a better conversation if you’re being direct rather than hoping people will notice that you’re about to break,” advises Forman.

And here’s another important thing to remember: Yes, things are especially crappy for working parents right now. But things will get better and there are going to be opportunities for moms to step in and help others when they need it as well. Here’s hoping that day comes sooner rather than later.

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