Tramelle Jones, a single mom with a full-time job, used to be one of the top performers at a national nonprofit that helped families foster youth. She enjoyed her work, coordinated off-site projects, stayed late, came in early, took on multiple leadership roles at once and performed many tasks outside her job description. Then, she had her child. Any working parent can guess what came next.
Jones had to adapt, negotiating flexibility into her role to survive and thrive. “When I had my daughter, I wasn’t able to show up at that level anymore. I knew there was an expectation for me to continue to run at hyper speed, and without my same level of output, our team would suffer,” she says.
She’s one of thousands of working parents who realized something had to give, and “respectfully” made some changes to continue parenting and working at her best. In a recent survey of 1,700 workplace parents conducted by Werklabs and The Mom Project, researchers wrote, “There are few words in our contemporary workplace lexicon that are more divisive than ‘flexible.’ From hot-desking and hybrid schedule to the very nature of our workplace hierarchies, the once-immutable norms of our American office structures are not only up for debate, but determinative of success.” And at the crux of these decisions are the more than 91% of working parents in our country trying to do, and be, it all.
Here’s what experts and moms want working parents to know about how to negotiate the necessary and well-deserved flexibility into your current or future role.
The status of the modern workplace
Times are changing, which we’ve known since the pandemic, but this time they are here to stay. Old work structures aren’t working for some parents. This is to the detriment of companies’ missions and bottom lines, as women are essential to the workforce. So essential, according to McKinsey Global Institute, that engaging more women in the workforce could add $12 trillion in GDP globally. To say there’s a lot to lose, or gain, would be an understatement.
Now, many positions are including language in job postings such as “flexible hours” or “flexible working conditions.” But what does this mean? The ambiguity matters, and the devil is in the details when it comes to fleshing out just how this will help you as a working parent. Parents have to be meticulous now to determine what flexibility really means in each job they apply for and pursue.
Returning to work after a caregiving pause? Don’t sell yourself short
In a 2023 Motherly survey of 10,000 mothers, more than half of respondents said they are going to need access to affordable childcare before they can return to work. These systemic issues mean that even parents who want to be working are being forced out due to the financial burden of childcare. Along with this, findings show that mental health, and the ability to balance everything from household workloads to relationships to finances, are top concerns. This means that sometimes it’s easier for moms who want to work to stay home.
Others, who just preferred staying home, might also find themselves looking to negotiate flexible work arrangements as they return after a “mom pause.” In the past, a “mom pause” was seen as a confusing hole in resumes, where employers asked awkward questions about what the job candidate had been “doing” for the past three, five or seven years. Now, progressive workplaces and initiatives such as The Mom Project are reframing that conversation and training parents to proceed with confidence.
To not sell yourself short, you have to know your priorities going into an interview or conversation with your boss. These priorities might include work-from-home options, health or childcare benefits, tuition reimbursements or flexible scheduling for doctor appointments, carpool or getting kids off the bus.
How to negotiate flexible working hours as a working parent
Remember Tramelle Jones? The high achiever who had to rethink everything after her daughter was born? She did, and it worked. Now, she coaches others on how to achieve their perfect workplace, as a strategic success and workplace wellness coach with TDJ Consulting. Here’s what she, and others, did to build their own perfect workplace.
Pick the right time to approach your boss
When Jones would need to miss work for prenatal appointments, she didn’t flippantly let the boss know at the copy machine. “Anytime I needed to talk with my bosses about these types of situations, I never had a casual conversation… you run the risk of flat-out rejection due to a lack of understanding or concentration,” she explains. “Those conversations went well since I’d done the legwork to suggest specific projects and had a list of days we could discuss. My bosses appreciated the fact that there wouldn’t be any last-minute requests and that I was willing to take on other tasks to balance out my time away from the office.”
Involve your colleagues
Jones knew she wouldn’t be able to continue doing tasks well into the night with her new baby. So, she reached out to colleagues and offered to trade tasks with them for ones that worked better for her. She also gave them ones they enjoyed more. This worked out best for everyone, and helped her succeed with doable tasks.
“My bosses appreciated my proactive approach and the fact that I was honest about the changes in my availability. I still stayed late, but not as often as before. My coworkers loved that they were able to pass on tasks they disliked, so we all won!” Jones says.
Ask for the schedule change that would make everything easier
Carrie Rose, certified life coach and founder of SunUp Coaching LLC, wanted to leave work at 2:30 p.m. when she was the executive director at a treatment facility. So, she finally asked. “Without hesitating, my boss said yes. He also reminded me that I would be a leader, and I could set an example of how to manage and balance family and work,” she says. So, she picked up her son on those two days from school, but she balanced some guilt that not everyone at the company had that same option. She hopes others will push for what they need schedule-wise to take care of their kids, too.
Create your own boundaries from the start
Gina Newton, a pharmaceutical consultant-turned-spiritual lifestyle coach, sets clear boundaries with clients up front. “When I seek new opportunities I note my expectations up front: remote work only, 25 flexible hours max. This is a big departure from the employee I used to be, and it has been that I always needed to set the expectation from the get-go,” she says. She’s also clear that this will never impact quality of work. “Ultimately, my work quality and volume is quick to build trust and accountability from my employers, because regardless of when I’m at my desk, things get done.”
“We must be able to speak our truth and say what we need and that ultimately should be done from the start at any new job. If an employer doesn’t respect it at the start, it won’t change,” she adds. “Say what you need from the start and if it isn’t respected, it isn’t the job for you.”
Be blunt and specific about breastfeeding-related needs
One of the barriers for parents returning to work is pumping and helping babies as they transition to taking a bottle from someone else. Jolee Vacchi, a divorce lawyer, founder of Foundations Family Law & Mediation Center, had a newborn who wouldn’t take a bottle despite trying all the kinds.
“So I told my supervisors that I was going to start taking my lunch hour every day to drive to her daycare and nurse her. Some days, I would take my lunch early if the daycare called me and said she was having a rough morning, and my supervisors accommodated this flexibility,” she says. “I was able to take advantage of a benefit that was already afforded to me and that I wasn’t utilizing to serve my personal needs as a new mom.”
Nicole Peluso, IBCLC, a manager of lactation education at Aeroflow Breastpumps, says that one fact you can use to help persuade bosses to be flexible around this topic is that breastfed workers statistically take off fewer sick days to care for their babies, because breastfeeding builds babies’ immune systems.
Here are some ideas you might want to request that help employees achieve work-life balance and are conducive to breastfeeding:
- Nursing breaks that are available every two work hours
- Approval to breastfeed while working (meaning the employee has the options to take breaks to nurse and/or work while nursing)
- Work shifts that are in two-, four- or six-hour increments with flextime outside of the shift schedule
- Remote work only
If these conversations on negotiating flexible work arrangements don’t work, consider plan B
Not all bosses will take kindly to strong and specific asks, even when they are valid. In that case, it might be time for a new plan, according to Marla J. Albertie, owner and founder of the TruthSpeaksGroup LLC, a multimedia company that creates strategies and solutions for work-life integration, and the founder, chief industrial-organizational psychologist and board president of I/O for Teens, Inc.
“Consider freelancing or consulting opportunities, explore job-sharing arrangements or seek out companies with return-to-work programs,” she says. “Distinguish between a flexible job and a part-time job by evaluating the amount of control over your work hours and location. A flexible job may offer varied scheduling options, while a part-time job usually has fewer weekly hours.”
As you look for new, more supportive and flexible positions, keep those personal values of what flexibility should look like front and center. Consider writing those values on a Post-it note, and maybe even keep it on your work-from-home desk for when you find that perfect flexible position that allows you to work and parent the best you can.
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