This has been a thing of mine for a while, this issue of the transferability of parenting skills. Folks seem to think that when you “step off the career track” you’re losing ground all the while. Everyone else speeds on without you. But people don’t pay enough attention to the vast array of really critical work/life skills that parenting develops. So I do. Some of them are these:
1. The ability to balance your own interests with those of others. Nothing short of a screaming toddler or a third night-time waking will so thoroughly test the limits of your own needs while simultaneously requiring you to manage the needs of someone else. It’s cruel but entirely usual, and frankly, it’s the best training I’ve ever seen for raising consciousness about the depth and dimensions of our various interests. We have to get creative, and eventually that creativity becomes a habit. Bam. Leg up on the non-parenting competition. (This obviously applies also to less-critical issues like going to the grocery store vs. going to the playground — an even better analogy for the workplace negotiations we will now be able to rock.)
2. The good sense not to ask a question if you don’t care about the answer. Ezra, can you pick up your toys? “No.” Oh. But you simultaneously develop much keener skill at asking good questions and really hearing their answers. Malachi, are you ready to go to bed? No. That means he wants to nurse more, which often means he’s thirsty. We’ve addressed that by giving him a sippy cup of water, but he sometimes forgets it’s available…so after a few more minutes of nursing, I can TELL him (not ASK) that it’s time for bed and ask him if he wants some water. The analogy here, of course, is the workplace environment where employees are invited to think their input matters, whereas in fact it does not. Brutal. But good leaders and colleagues (and parents) will ask genuine questions and learn from the answers; good assessment (and parenting) asks smart questions we want answered and then makes meaningful use of those answers. Win win win win. Win.
3. The capacity to be patient with, and even fascinated by, processes different from your own. This is a tough one for me because I’m an efficiency hound and I generally figure that my way is the best way. (It generally is. Objective studies have proven this.) But the very small among us of course have different rules and capacities, and they’ll never get anywhere if we keep doing for them. So breathing in and out while watching them do what they do has to become a kind of sport. And it’s actually brilliantly amazing if you build in the room and the time and the safety nets in case of accident. In the workplace this one is tougher because, well, sometimes there really aren’t as many ways to get a certain task done, and usually you’re dealing with adults who can reasonably be expected to both seek and attain a degree of efficiency. But still: to be willing to watch, to hand something over, and to have planned enough that you can truly be free with it, is a rare gift to everyone involved. No other experience teaches that as well as parenting.
4. The inclination to wonder, to question, and to celebrate. Adult life is dull enough, thanks to our cultural training in what’s expected: sober attitudes, cautious approaches, polite responses. And these are good. But what happened to exuberance? What about those glorious peals of laughter we used to emit? What about our innate desire to spend hours face-down belly-up to a tide-pool, watching its tiny inhabitants craft their world? Children remind us of all these things, and they remind us that life is short and sparkling and way more astounding than we can imagine. To carry that awareness into a work environment is a thing of beauty as well as a boost to productivity. Example: in a discussion recently about an area non-profit’s many programs, I pointed out that people receiving some services may not be receiving others. The challenge was raised that it may not want to advertise some services where there are limited resources, like home heating fuel assistance, because we don’t want to build a market where we have no solution. But “no solution” sounded wrong to me, trained as I am in the vagaries of childhood mentalities. Surely a deficit of money to give to folks to buy heating oil is not the only way to help a state heat its homes? What about creating local industries around new, high-efficiency wood-pellet stoves and the manufacture of wood pellets to burn in them? “No solution” is an adult’s response, and one we’d do well to get past. We may not SEE a solution; we may not HAVE one yet, but we can keep dreaming and studying and asking and working until we get some better ideas. Am I right?
I’m sure there will be more of these as I move ahead, since it’s been such a theme for me for so long now, but I just wanted to get these off my chest. There are a million reasons why time away from careers, devoted to parenting, is in the best interests of everyone and everything, but not enough of us talk about how it makes us better when we go back to work. You WANT parents stepping back on the track when they feel ready: you want to hire them, to work with them, to live near them. They bring skills and assets that just don’t have room to blossom in most full-time career-track folks. Yes, time away is a privilege — and one that can serve all of us.