May 29, 2019

Are you a 'secret parent' at work? Here's why you should open up about your kids.

Daily Briefing

    Parents across the country are downplaying their child-care obligations to appear 100% committed to their office jobs—a practice that harms parents and employers alike, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, writes for The Atlantic.

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    The 'secret parenting' phenomenon

    Oster recently spent several weeks interviewing parents "about all aspects of life with little kids." She writes, "One thing I heard much more than I would have liked … was that parents feel the need to hide or minimize the evidence of their children at the office."

    One woman told Oster that she never heard her male colleagues, all of whom were fathers, talk about their children at work, so when she became pregnant with her first child, she followed suit.

    Oster's own colleagues told her "when they were more junior, they made it a point never to put pictures of their children up in their offices," she writes. And Oster herself noted that, in the past, she's cited "other obligations or been vague" to explain why she was absent or leaving early on a given day to spend time with her children.

    "The general sense is that everyone should adopt the polite fiction that after the first several months of leave, the child disappears into a void," Oster writes.

    There's little reliable data on the so-called "secret parenting" phenomenon, but a 2014 paper based on interviews with 26 women who were mothers to small children found similar trends. The authors wrote, "Hiding being a mother and engaging in strategies for secrecy were ubiquitous themes."

    According to Oster, "Some of the women … reported that they had feigned illness when their child got sick, because taking a sick day for themselves seemed acceptable, but taking one to nurse a child did not."

    Workplace culture creates a lose-lose situation

    The reason for all the secrecy, according to Oster, is our workplace culture.

    "When work and parenting seem at odds—because our culture tells us they're at odds—mothers and fathers feel forced to demonstrate their commitment to one (the work side) by minimizing their concern for the other (the parenting side)," Oster writes. "They do not want their bosses to think they are anything other than 100% committed" to their work.

    But inevitably, kids will get sick or a babysitter will call out, so the current culture which pits parenting against work is bad for both parents and employers, Oster writes.

    "Inflexibility around child care is, quite simply, going to cost firms valuable workers," she writes, noting that many of the women in the 2014 paper ultimately "left the labor force."

    The solution to secret parenting?

    It will take a long time to address the "climate issues that lead to secret parenting," Oster writes, but in the meantime, parents can "[f]ight the culture that encourages secret parenting by … not parenting secretly."

    Today, Oster writes that she makes a conscious effort not to downplay or cover up her parenting obligations at work. "I tell people, 'I'm sorry, I do not do meetings after 5 p.m., because of my children,'" she writes. And she has pictures of her children up everywhere in her office. "One glance around my office, and you'd know I'm a parent."

    According to Oster, the more that parents, particularly those in senior roles, acknowledge that they have to care for their children, the more it will force employers to change policies on paid parental leave or make adjustments to employees' schedules.

    "Put simply, mothers and fathers ought to come clean about the nature of their lives," Oster writes. She adds, "[W]e can't improve the lot of parents at work if we pretend we aren't parents" (Oster, The Atlantic, 5/21).

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