I’m a little over one year into my job. My manager is great, my co-workers are fine, and the benefits are outstanding. The work-life balance is healthy, and we are encouraged to take our PTO and to have fulfilling lives outside of work — the owners take pride when employees get married, buy houses, and have kids. And I’m happy to be part of a company that cares about employees as people, not just for what they accomplish during the workday. I’m generally happy here, and I like it as much as one can like a job.
However, I’m the youngest person at my company. I also don’t plan on ever having children. Meanwhile, a good portion of employees here have joined the “three kids club,” and it’s kind of a running joke in the company.
My team consists only of me, my manager, and a co-worker, and this year both of them got pregnant and had back-to-back parental leaves. Out of the 15 months I’ve been here, six months have been spent holding down the fort during parental leaves. That’s not the problem; I’m glad we have a robust parental-leave policy!
My issue is that I’m now being asked to handle more after-hours work events, when before they weren’t my responsibility. We have three office locations, in three nearby but far enough away cities. Each of us on my team is located in one of the three offices, so we each handle events in our respective cities. When my manager was on leave, myself and my teammate both covered her city so that it would be equal and fair.
Now that she’s back, I’m still being asked to cover the events in her city because she can’t find child care. I have a full social life and plans most days of the week, whether it’s a weekly obligation or loose plans to grab dinner with a friend, or maybe I’m caring for a sick relative. It shouldn’t matter what I’m doing; my time outside of work is no less important than anyone else’s just because I don’t have children.
Before my manager had a child, this was not an issue. But it’s become the new norm, and it’s not sustainable for me. I like my job and this is not enough to make me leave. That said, I do want to make it clear to my manager that I don’t want to continue to have things pushed onto my plate simply because I don’t have kids. But it’s also tough to say, “Hey, I know you can’t get child care, but I have a kickball league that needs me.”
In the decade and a half that I’ve written a workplace-advice column, I’ve received a steady flow of letters from people frustrated that they’re expected to pick up additional work for their co-workers simply because they don’t have kids. They’re assumed to be available in the evenings or on the weekends, or they’re never given first dibs on desirable vacation dates because colleagues with kids are always allowed to claim them first.
Like you, most of these people are unsure about how to speak up because they feel weird about suggesting their kickball game should trump a co-worker’s child-care responsibilities. And yes, in a vacuum, if an emergency situation comes up that requires work coverage, it makes sense to consider the relative needs and constraints of everyone involved, and the kickball game might be what gets sacrificed. But when this becomes a pattern and employees without kids are consistently expected to do more than their colleagues who are parents, that’s not okay. A single kickball game might not be a big deal, but getting the same amount of time off work as your co-workers — and having your own life choices and commitments given the same amount of respect — definitely is.
It made sense that you pitched in to cover when your co-workers were on parental leave. That’s a normal thing to happen, just like you might also need to cover when a colleague is on a lengthy medical leave or when someone’s resignation leaves a vacancy that hasn’t been filled. Everyone fills in during those situations over the course of their careers. But now that your co-workers are back and it looks like you’re being expected to pick up some of their responsibilities permanently, that’s not fair and it’s worth raising with your boss.
Sit down with your boss and say something like this: “I was able to cover events in City X when you were on leave, but it’s not something I can do long-term. Starting at the end of this month, my commitments outside of work mean I won’t be available to fill in for those, so I wanted to give you a heads-up so you can make other plans.”
Now, in theory, your boss could tell you that events in her city are part of your job now, take it or leave it, so you’d want to be prepared for that. Jobs do change and sometimes they change in ways that don’t align with what you want. If that happens, you can decide whether you want the job under these new terms or not. But it’s a reasonable thing for you to raise, and there’s a good chance that it will be the nudge that compels your boss to realize she needs a different plan to get that work covered. And if she’s not willing to let you out of those events, you’re better off getting clarity about that reality sooner.
Also, to be clear, it might be perfectly reasonable that your boss and co-worker don’t want to work evening hours now that they have babies! A lot of people wouldn’t. But the burden of accommodating that shouldn’t fall on you; it should fall on your employer. And that’s the crux of how the current situation arose: Your colleagues’ flexibility is coming at your expense rather than the company’s expense.
Moreover, if employees with kids have the ability to opt out of difficult scheduling commitments, that option should be available to anyone who needs it, not just parents. People with all kinds of circumstances need flexibility — to take a class, to care for aging relatives, to pursue hobbies, to recharge on their own. You’re as deserving of time for those things as your colleagues are for their own commitments.
Policies and practices that only consider the needs of parents while leaving everyone else behind only serve to pit parents and nonparents against each other, which conveniently shifts attention away from employers’ responsibility to make jobs sustainable and compatible with people’s real lives (as well as from a government that ignores its populace’s need for affordable child care and paid sick leave, but that’s another conversation altogether). For now, though, talking to your boss is your best option.