Most mornings, I get in early enough to turn on the lights in my office. I unpack my bag uninterrupted, to a background of almost complete silence. Never before have I performed basic tasks with such relish.
Unlike my 16-month-old son, my computer has never screamed at me in the middle of the night. The walls of my cubicle have never been lowered to prevent something inside from climbing out. If I place an object — something sharp, poisonous, or innocuous — on my desk, I can pretty much guarantee no one will examine it with her mouth. These are workplace perks I never thought to appreciate, until I had a baby.
Much about being a working parent in this country is less than great. Child-care costs are too high. The vast majority of parental leaves are not long enough; most do not pay. The future of public education, especially early childhood education, is at risk with the current administration. It would be great to feel confident in our president’s ability and willingness to significantly improve conditions for working families. Instead, I have a tiny recommendation, one you can easily make reality: Don’t bring your small child to the place where you work with the expectation that it will be fun. It won’t be.
The last time my son visited me at work, he was a hit. My co-workers surrounded us and cooed while my spouse stood dutifully off to the side. People were kind, complimenting his eyes and the fact that he wasn’t crying.
Then, standing with my baby on my hip, I ran out of words to say. Every computer in sight loomed: There were things I needed to do, lots of them. My co-workers had their own things. We were all just standing there. And, unbeknownst to me, my son was filling his diaper, the contents of which leaked all over my shirt.
Once I discovered it, this problem wasn’t that hard to solve: I snuck my baby into a private place, changed him, swapped my soiled shirt for my desk sweater, and slipped the dirty diaper into our baby backpack for my husband to find once he got home. My family left; I got back to work, rattled and behind. “Babies should come in more often!” someone said. “It raises everyone’s mood.”
The afternoon chugged on, and no one, I’m sure, thought more about my son’s visit besides me. With the exception of another mother I work with, who messaged to ask if I looked forward to having my son in the office, only to wish almost immediately he were gone.
God, yes, I wrote back. We wondered if others whose children visited felt like this: caught in a sheepish crossfire between work guilt and parent guilt. The simple solution is to avoid the office visit altogether — or to severely lower your expectations.
According to Jena Booher, founder and CEO of Babies on the Brain, a company that uses psychology research to train managers to recruit and retain diverse teams, it’s worth examining why you wanted to bring your baby for a visit in the first place. Is it to seem more human to your co-workers? Is it because you want a visual to explain why you never stay late anymore? Is it because you miss your baby that much?
“Does the work culture support it?” Booher wants to know. “Culture is everything. Companies can have great policies, like generous parental leave, flexible work arrangements, accessible pumping stations … but behaviors speak volumes more than policy creation.” Microinvalidations or microaggressions — little comments made here and there — can undercut what a workplace feels like to a parent day to day. If you’re bringing your child in constantly, she says, you may risk distracting your co-workers and building some resentment. “Stigma is definitely attached to merging the professional and the personal.”
Booher points out that some parents bring their children into the office strategically, right at the end of their parental leave. “It sort of deconstructs the myth that mom wasn’t on vacation. She was caring for a newborn. This helps to humanize her leave.” Doing this, Booher says, can make a difference with co-workers who’ve stepped in while you were out. “Usually, these particular colleagues never received a thank-you from management for doing extra work, much less a bump in pay or a promotion. Bringing the newborn in can soften some of those resentments prior to mom coming back to work.”
But what if the fuller picture created by bringing the baby in for a visit includes something unpleasant? “Maybe it’s just me,” my friend Madeleine recently confessed, “but I always worry I’m going to have some big parenting disaster in front of everyone. And then I seem doubly incompetent — failing at work and mom stuff at the same time.”
Booher says this fear can be alleviated by planning. “Only bring the child in after a good night’s sleep — and right after he’s been fed. The visit itself should be a flyby, under about 20 minutes.” Plus, she says, her work has yet to yield a report of a full-scale parenting disaster during a quick office visit.