Balancing Act

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton

“Having children is like having a bowling alley in your brain.” – Martin Mull

“I’d love to come to your conference. I’m a nursing mom. Do you have a place I can pump?” – me

As a kid, I used to count the days until summer vacation. Now, at the beginning of each fiscal year, I count the days until I get to start planning my conference schedule.  I love looking at the year ahead to see what’s being offered, where it’s happening, and who is going to be there that I can’t miss. I get almost as excited for conferences as I do for vacations, as these experiences feed both my passion and my soul. I find I learn best when I’m taken out of my comfortable environment and placed in a new space with strangers and friends I don’t usually get to see. These experiences are invaluable for my work, and my spirit.

But my attitude toward these opportunities has changed in the last few years. Now I weigh the benefits of the conference against the time spent away from my little boys and husband, and the scales are pretty weighted toward my family. Working a full-time job and being the parent of very young children is the greatest challenge of my life. And, sadly, our society is not set up to help us parents balance these great responsibilities.

There are many obstacles that working parents have to overcome, every day. We struggle to feel successful at anything, because there never seems to be enough hours in the day to truly serve our work and our children. One of a dozen issues I face every day is how, when, and where to pump. I’m a nursing mom, and though some folks still feel squeamish about hearing anything tied to that particular anatomical part, pumping is a constant reality and necessity for working mothers committed to being the primary source of nutrition for their babies.

To be clear, I hate pumping. I hate it. When Alex is a year old and I don’t have to pump anymore, I will gleefully set my pump on fire and send it flying off the tallest building I can find. But until then, it’s the machine that helps me take care of my baby, and where I go, it will too.

But I can’t let pumping – or parenting – completely derail my professional life. So it’s time to get back in the conference saddle. I’ve missed too many in the past few years. To that end, I’ve been exploring my options and I’m delighted about what’s coming up. Next month, for the first time, I’ll be attending the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford. I haven’t been at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference in two years, so I’m excited to be attending this October. Other excellent opportunities are lined up for the winter and spring. These events are critical to my success at the Arts Council, as they connect me to great thinking in the field, fuel my passion, and deepen my ability to serve the arts both locally and nationally.

As I contemplate these opportunities, however, I have to consider how I can manage my commitments. And so every time an intriguing event comes my way, I pick up the phone, call the event organizer, and tell them that I’d very much like to participate, but is there a place I can pump?

To a person, I’ve been the first one to ask them this question, which I find both surprising and sad. What have other nursing moms done? Have they just not participated? Or have they pumped in a bathroom stall? Or in their car in a parking lot? Or have they been too shy to ask the question? There’s one conference that I’m not attending due to schedule conflicts, but I was particularly distressed that they didn’t have a ready answer for me, since the conference was all about empowering women in the workplace. We cannot empower women, or parents of either gender, in the workplace if we aren’t anticipating their basic needs. True, not every woman with a baby is pumping, but it’s my guess that thousands of women currently working in Santa Cruz are pumping, and maybe even pumping as I write this. While pumping.

The good news is, all of the conference organizers I’ve talked with eventually said “yes”, that they could accommodate my needs (which are pretty simple: privacy, a table, and outlet.) Indeed, the Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford, which is the venue for the Nonprofit Management Instituted, has a room reserved for nursing mothers. But why isn’t this the norm?

I travel a fair amount for my work, and engage with cultural leaders and institutions across the country. And I hear time and time again about how these institutions want to attract young, energetic, dynamic leadership. When I was in my early 30’s, I heard a great deal about the looming “leadership gap”, where major institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors were terrified that their CEOs were going to retire and there wasn’t enough talent to fill their shoes. (All of the young leaders I was connected with at the time thought this was hogwash, because we were all ready and able to jump in, but that’s another story.)

But here’s the thing: if you want young leadership, you have to be prepared for the priorities of the young, and that often means starting families. I’m not ashamed to admit that before taking my current job, I asked a very pointed question: does the insurance policy cover maternity benefits? I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I could do it and be a successful ED – but only if I wasn’t terrified about having to pay out-of-pocket for my health care needs.

But insurance is only the beginning. There are many things to consider around parenting issues if your organization wants to attract and keep young talent:

–          Does your organization have maternity and paternity policies that go beyond the (pathetic) federal requirements?

–          Are you willing to let parents (or anyone, for that matter) work flexible schedules?

–          Are you willing to create personnel policies that help young parents fulfill their parenting responsibilities? (A place for pumping is just one example.)

When organizing events or conferences, there is also much to consider. What about proactively making the conference appealing and accessible to young parents? There are many ways to do this, but here are two:

  1. On the conference registration, the form always asks if the registrant has special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility, hearing aids, even vegetarian meals. How about asking if the registrant will need a space to pump or nurse (if the parent is bringing the baby)?
  2. When providing event information for multi-day conferences, how about including child care referrals for qualified nannies willing to come watch children in the hotel room at night, so the attendees can attend the evening events?

Does this seem over the top? I don’t think so. These are small suggestions that in my mind need to seed a revolution on how parenting is prioritized in our corporate (and sometimes our nonprofit) culture. We do a terrible job of taking care of parents in this country. We value being overworked and overtired. We create job structures that reward time spent at desks rather than accomplishments in our communities. And we rarely celebrate the millions of people who manage to juggle kids and work and do their absolute best to be of service to both.

When you’ve got a little one at home and a big job at work, you feel as though you never have enough time for both. So the least we as nonprofit leaders can do is smooth the way, be thoughtful about how we structure our organizations and events, and work to make parents of young children feel a little more welcome.

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