Do You Feel You Have to Hide Your Identity as a Parent?

July 1, 2019

Emily Oster’s recent Atlantic article, “End the Plague of Secret Parenting,” is the kind of piece female friends pass around in a text message that includes just the link and the hallelujah hands emoji. It resonates, but we’re all too busy to talk about why.

And talking is the whole point. Oster, an economist, argues that we need to normalize the experience of parenting—that kids get sick, that school schedules can be inconvenient and unpredictable, that what’s going on with our kids is as important to us as what’s going on at work. And we normalize it by talking openly with colleagues and bosses.

But we’re a long way from feeling safe doing so. Most women she talked to said they still felt there was a stigma even to acknowledging their kids’ existence. They felt judged and worried they would not be taken seriously by their male colleagues (many of whom, by the way, are also parents, though you’d never know it!). “Why would people do this? Why pretend kids are of “little importance”? 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). They do not want their bosses to think they are anything other than 100 percent committed.”

Women in the middle of their careers now will recognize this as a generational question. Until recently, they were in the “secret parenthood” camp because they had to be, accepting the norms around the separation between work and personal life and expecting their colleagues to follow suit. But #MeToo has prompted us to reexamine all kinds of norms considered par for the course just a few years ago.

Law firm culture is particularly conservative, and probably the most enlightened partners over the age of 45 are just so accustomed to the “don’t mention your kids” ethos that it’s still a bit shocking to them when someone cites a child-care issue as a reason for re-scheduling. And yet millennials are much more likely to do so, and to demand the kind of flexibility that gives them more balance between work and home.

Firms that are serious about normalizing parenthood and the chaos that comes with it must embrace this new norm from the top down. Most importantly, men would have to do it too. Internal communications would need to highlight examples of men being open about parenthood, men taking time away to be with their children, men choosing to value family over work when necessary and not shying away from saying so. Firms would also have to staff client and deal teams with some redundancy so that someone would always be available for a client if needed.

If we rely on individual women to bravely speak up—and risk consequences to their career—secret parenting will continue to dominate work-life issues. But forward-thinking firms have an opportunity to lead on this issue and champion a culture where lawyers can bring their whole selves to work without fear that their authenticity will cost them in the long run.