What Does It Mean to Be a Parent Who Works?

Me with my dad in 1982, in a photo taken by one of his students.

When I was growing up, I went to sleep every night to an ambient soundscape of muffled thuds and bangs, snippets of Van Halen, and random teenage-boy shouts filtered through my bedroom ceiling. My father ran a dorm at a Boston-area prep school, and my family lived in faculty housing in the same turn-of-the-century brick building as the dorm. My bedroom was under the senior quad, so I spent my childhood separated by six inches of plaster from a remote, adolescent universe. Other people’s houses were really quiet by comparison.

In the early ’80s — My Little Pony was on TV, Reagan was in the White House — “work-life balance” wasn’t yet a national obsession. But my parents’ version was amazing. Their students babysat me and my sisters. When we got older, we took Latin and trig classes with Mom and Dad; they were literally getting paid to spend time with us. My parents worked full-time, but the academic lifestyle perfectly accommodated a family.

So maybe my mental template of work-family balance is unrealistic, but I think a lot about what the ideal ratio is. I’m one half of a dual-earner couple living in New York City. My husband and I both work outside the home, in jobs we love. We have two kids, and we’re lucky enough to be in good health, and able to afford great, full-time childcare.

Nevertheless, the birth of my second baby last year threw me into a tailspin. Now, the non-work hours my husband and I previously spent solely with our son have had to be split between him and our daughter. Because there are just fewer of those hours than I’d like, that feels like a hardship for both kids — a tolerable one on a daily basis, but still a niggling one. And I worry that the time my husband and I do spend with them isn’t enough. When we’re home at night, but still answering emails, or zoning out at dinner, that we’re not present enough. That our childcare solution has flaws we don’t see, because we’re not around all day. I think many parents harbor these fears, although we don’t always talk about them.

Lately, however, the conversation about work, and how it overlaps with the rest of our lives — specifically, parenting — has become more mainstream. American companies in some sectors seem to be converging on a non-collaborative, but weirdly synchronized, understanding that working families need more help. Netflix announced a year-long paid parental leave policy for some workers; IBM said it would ship new moms’ breast milk home from business trips for free; Mark Zuckerberg and his wife talked about their miscarriages; and the New York Times published a series of topical pieces on difficult workplaces, parental leave benefits, and paternity leave’s increasing prevalence. (Many of the most generous paternity leave policies, it should be noted, are now better than the average maternity leave policy — meaning men with the best policies are now able to take more time off than most women in the U.S.) Anne-Marie Slaughter, who helped convene this national dialogue in 2012 with her Atlantic article, and, with many others, continues to advance the conversation, is publishing a book on the topic, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.

Here at Medium, we saw an opportunity to create a central place for this unfolding dialogue, so we created a pop-up publication, Working Parents in America, to run through late October. We asked working couples across the country to keep parenting diaries, detailing their day-in-the-life struggles and victories; we invited a bunch of accomplished mothers and fathers, who have carved out admirably big careers, to write about how they did it; and we’ll be featuring a series of original stories and essays exploring various facets of working parenthood. We want to know: What would it look like if, as a country, we did a better job of providing support for people who start families? Our hope is that through a series of frank contributions — from academics, politicians, culture-makers, corporate leaders, and everyday parents—we will all develop new insights. Or at the least, just a series of better questions.

We want to hear from you, too — whether your workplace is a fast-food joint, a big-city investment bank, a private school, your home, or a tech company like mine (I work at Medium, in fact). Whether you have one kid, five, or zero but want them — or don’t. This series is about our work, and our families, two of the most consuming things in our lives. Everyone should have a say in how they impact one another.

Medium is convening a conversation about work, parenthood, and how the two mesh — or don’t — in our lives. To get involved, please follow the Working Parents publication and the tag, and help us expand the dialogue by writing a post or a response.

Special thanks to Kate Lee and Mark Lotto for their expertise; Lauren Smiley for recruiting the parenting diarists; Erich Nagler for logo design; Carrie Tian for ingenious data and survey design; and Vauhini Vara, consulting editor on this project.