When Your Child Is Sick, What Do You Tell Your Boss?

Silence is toxic. Our ideas of normal come from what we see and hear around us. Our permission to act, and even think, in a certain way, is obtained by noticing the boundaries being heeded by everyone else. So I make it a point to talk about my children at work.
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I talk about my children a lot at work.

In part that's because, as a parenting blogger, it is, let's face it, my job. But there is a larger reason, too: I feel a responsibility to make such workplace conversations okay.

I didn't start out quite so chatty. When I entered my first newsroom, nearly three decades ago, parents (and particularly mothers) did not mention their kids. There were no photos of children on the desks. To display families was to display weakness -- to hint that you might have other things on your mind than the next scoop.

During my first pregnancy I worked in a national bureau, which meant I could keep things hidden for quite awhile. I liked it that way. No one could see me so I felt less pressure to prove that I was still exactly as focused and determined as before. (I wasn't, of course; I was differently focused and determined, but I didn't know that yet.) I snuck off to my regular OB appointments, calling them reporting "interviews" if anyone asked.

By the time I was pregnant the second time, though, the energy it took to pretend I was feeling peachy became exhausting. It was SO much easier to announce I felt like crap and that I wasn't getting nearly enough sleep. When I had a doctor's appointment I said I had a doctor's appointment. And if my then-toddler was home sick, or had a preschool class trip, or was the reason I didn't want to stay away a second night on a work trip, I started to say that out loud, too.

Then I began covering Life and Work and came to realize that silence is toxic. Our ideas of normal come from what we see and hear around us. Our permission to act, and even think, in a certain way, is obtained by noticing the boundaries being heeded by everyone else.

In her much talked about article in The Atlantic this week, Anne-Marie Slaughter explains how she goes out of her way to talk, too.

During her early years as a lawyer -- ones that coincided with my early years as a reporter -- she carefully watched "the pioneer generation of feminists" as they "walled off their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work." A few decades later, when she became dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, she writes:

I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. Thus, I would end faculty meetings at 6 p.m. by saying that I had to go home for dinner; I would also make clear to all student organizations that I would not come to dinner with them, because I needed to be home from six to eight, but that I would often be willing to come back after eight for a meeting. I also once told the Dean's Advisory Committee that the associate dean would chair the next session so I could go to a parent-teacher conference.

After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. "You have to stop talking about your kids," one said. "You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school." I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice.

She tips her hat to others who do things in the same vein -- Secretary of State Clinton, for instance, who Slaughter worked with until recently, and who "deliberately came in around 8 a.m. and left around 7 p.m., to allow her close staff to have morning and evening time with their families (although of course she worked earlier and later, from home)." And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who "recently acknowledged not only that she leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner with her family, but also that for many years she did not dare make this admission, even though she would of course make up the work time later in the evening."

It is a hard admission to make. But, as I learned with pregnancy, the strain that comes from pretending can be harder, still. And the more you tell, it follows that the more it becomes okay for others to hear.


During the web frenzy of conversation about Slaughter's piece yesterday, journalist Hannah Seligson, who often writes about the workplace, left this comment on New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor's Facebook page:

Anne-Marie Slaughter says women need to advocate more for balance. Be upfront, she says, about taking time off to go watch your daughter's soccer game. That's all fine and good in theory, but what about young women who are trying to work their way up the ladder in very competitive fields, where those kinds of choices are often way more complicated? My experience in the seven years I've spent writing for national newspapers and magazines is that being the gal who can do anything - and at any time - is highly rewarded. Personally, (and maybe this is where I need to step up as a foot soldier in this balance battle) I fear there will be career repercussions if I, said, "No, I can't file that story, I'm getting married later this week." In fact, I was told by an editor that it spoke to "my professionalism" that I did not tell her until the story was filed on Friday evening that I was getting married on Sunday. (FYI, I completely agree with my editor's assessment that it was the professional thing to do not to tell her.)

So more broadly, what's at stake when women prioritize their personal lives over their work, particularly in this economy when there is no shortage of talented workers who need work? Also: I'm not sure I agree with Slaughter's take that women should be more transparent about the responsibilities pulling on them at home. Maybe if you've reached the apex of your career, proven yourself indispensible to your organization, or you work in a highly, highly specialized position. But for most of my peers - women born in the early 1980s - I would say we just feel lucky to have jobs and are terrified of rocking the boat.

Is it unprofessional to tell an editor that you are getting married this weekend? Not in the kind of workplace I want to be a part of. And not in the kind of workplace where morale is high and everyone understands that life happens. A workplace where you are judged by what you produce not how you produce it.

So I talk too much, and see it as a call to arms, a declaration of interdependence, a statement, as I wrote back to Seligson, that "we all do better work when we aren't scrambling to hide the whole of our lives, but are instead allowed to integrate them and fit our work around them."

So, let's talk.

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