Hurray…It’s Working Parents Day

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting all year for today.  One day dedicated to recognizing the people who “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan.”  Only this isn’t a line from an old TV commercial about women but a reality about *every* working parent.  The people who spend their days (or nights) generating an income for baby clothes, school supplies, dance lessons, pediatrician visits, braces, school trips, and the millions of other expenses that it takes to raise their children to adulthood.  And with adulthood coming later and later, often well *into* adulthood as well.

I don’t know about you, but Working Parents Day should be celebrated every day.  It isn’t enough and certainly minimizes the herculean job of working parents who are trying to balance – or as I prefer – integrate two competing roles and responsibilities.  They often say that unless you’re in it, you don’t get it, yet every working parent knows the juggling act required.  Some days work and others are nightmares.  Some days are all about putting out fires at work and at home.  Some days, a 10-minute bathroom break no matter where it may be is likely the only break possible until they fall into bed for a few hours of sleep before it starts all over again.

I don’t know about you, but working parents are the people in our society who deserve the kudos…and more.  They are keeping businesses in business while raising the next generation leading us into the future.  They’re meeting deadlines and making clients happy while making sure that their children are educated, safe, and have a decent breakfast every day.  No combination of jobs or roles is harder or more significant.

So while I don’t know about you, what I do know is that every working parent — married or single, white or blue collar, working days or night shift, raising children with or without special needs…every working parent deserves more than a day.  They deserve support, recognition, decent wages, flexible work hours, paid family leave, affordable child care, support for their child’s education, the ability to step off and step back, and genuine appreciation for a job well done each and every single day.

Business leaders need to stop and consider just where their businesses would be without working parents.  They need to recognize that some working parents need more flexibility and others need specific benefits.  They need to understand that working parents are working hard to be “top performers” yet sometimes the push/pull requires difficult choices.  And they should never forget that the child who needs Mom at home for two days due to the flu or the teen who wants Dad to visit colleges with them are the same people who will be filling the roles in their businesses tomorrow.  So hurray for Working Parents Day.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s 365 days a year.

SIDE NOTE:  My blog is moving to our website — http://www.Education-Navigation.com — shortly so please visit me there.  I welcome your comments and more…

 

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Parents, Children, Autism, and Unconditional Love

Let me start by saying that I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, or expert on love.  I am, however, a parent and as such, have filled these roles and many more in the two decades since I went from being “me” to “we.”

Andrew Solomon’s recently posted TED talk – “Love, no matter what” on parenting, children, differences, and unconditional love struck a number of chords.  How we need to embrace our children and their differences and how unconditional love means doing just this.  He spoke of the changes we as a society have undergone in terms of understanding and accepting our gay children, our children with Down’s Syndrome, and our children with other differences and disabilities.  And while I agreed with much of his talk, there were two points of fairly strong disagreement, one of which follows.

Solomon stated that parents of children with autism who wish that their children did not have this diagnosis somehow fail the litmus test of unconditional love.  What?  Parents of autistic children don’t love their children unconditionally?  Say it wasn’t what he said.  But it was.

On my soapbox I climb once again to say… No parents understand the definition of unconditional love like parents of children with autism.

I don’t need to revisit again what I’ve expressed so many times before…the hours, sacrifices, work/life conflicts, financial strain, family upheaval…all the things that define parenting children, teens, and young adults in a world where they struggle at best to meet its demands.  But I do need to ensure that anyone who may not understand why parents would “wish” their children did not have this diagnosis, understands it now.

Parents of autistic children see their children’s struggles every day in ways that clinicians, teachers, and others cannot.  They see them from sunrise to sunset.  They know that the weather, clothing, food, sounds, movement, people, activities, environments, and a host of other day-to-day situations create chaos for their children.  Does anyone think these parents may “wish” this wasn’t the case for their children?  Does anyone think these parents may “wish” their children had friends?  Could speak?  Could drive?  Live independently?  Work?

If parents of children with autism wish anything, it’s that their children did not have these struggles or needs.  They wish for anything – something – to lessen their children’s pain.  But the wishing has nothing whatsoever to do with love.  And certainly not unconditional love.  Parents of children with autism *define* unconditional love and epitomize what this truly means.  They could also teach a lesson or two to many other parents as well.

We all wish for things.   For life to be easier.  For money to be more.  For family to be well.  And yes, parents of children with autism do wish for things too.  That their 4th Grader would be invited to a classmate’s birthday party.  That their 8th Grader would be asked to be in the science club.  That their 12th Grader would be able to attend college.  But the one wish they don’t have is wishing that their children were different so their love for them would then be without restrictions or caveats.

It’s this type of unconditional love that keeps parents of children with autism forging ahead, plowing through the difficulties, never taking “no” for an answer, exploring supports wide and far.  If wishing comes into play here at all, it’s that these parents wish that their children may have every opportunity to live a life where *their* wishes can come true.  And their shot at doing so rests firmly on the shoulders of their parents who love them unconditionally.

Trust Me…It’s A Crisis

I’ve always struggled with numbers but not this one…

From the CDC comes this statistic – 1 in 50 children under the age of 17 holds an autism diagnosis.  Even for me, someone who has worked with parents of children with autism for years and suspected for quite some time that even the most recent statistic of 1 in 88 children was low, seeing this in print was simply startling.

Ask anyone whose life has been touched by autism and they’ll tell you that it changes everything.  It strains marriages and finances.  Overwhelms resources and time.  Shifts priorities and plans.  Every day, in every possible way, autism overtakes life and the expression …”let me count the ways” doesn’t even scratch the surface in terms of the impact an autism spectrum disorder has on parents, families and well beyond.  Trust me, I know.

At a time when school budgets are being slashed and families are truly hurting by an aching economy, these numbers equate to a huge wake-up call for those who may have been napping.  The need for early intervention services is critical as the earlier supports and services are secured, the greater likelihood that the child can make and sustain progress.  The need for broader and more complex supports for teens has never been greater with social deficits and bullying defining a huge part of life for high school students.  And the need for college-level support is enormous, as the expectations and freedom that accompany the foray into young adult independence brings with it enormous risks.  Trust me, I know.

Working parents have the greatest challenges and if both parents are employed full-time outside of the home or if it’s a single parent household, all bets are off.  Therapies, evaluations, research, school meetings, crisis situations…the strain on working parents and their time, finances, and health are beyond what employers and colleagues understand or even recognize. And as I say ad nauseum…behind every child with an autism spectrum disorder is a parent (or two parents) of a child with an autism spectrum disorder.  Trust me, I know.

Autism is complex and multi-faceted, leaving even the most “on” parents buckling under the strain.   Parents find themselves leaving jobs because any hope of work/life balance is greatly compromised if not impossible.  Parents find themselves on Google at 3 a.m. or spending weekends sifting through books and journals.  Parents find themselves remortgaging their homes, borrowing from family members, and altering their way of life beyond what those on the outside could fathom.   Trust me, I know.

Autism is a crisis.  Plain and simple.  It was a crisis five years ago and is even moreso today.  And while many are researching causes and developing new therapies, the reality is that exploding numbers of children and teens are struggling on this very day from wake-up in the morning to sleep (if sleep even happens) at night, in 2nd Grade and 11th Grade, in public schools and private schools.  And standing behind and beside each of these children is a worn, overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused parent – or two parents – trying in herculean ways to find answers and make things better.  Trust me, I know.

When a crisis hits, people mobilize.  Only in this case, it isn’t a natural disaster but rather a national crisis impacting not only families in their own homes, but employers as well.  Employers must offer assistance, whether through flexible work options, funds allocated for an employee to use for therapies, private school, or legal counsel, or employee resource groups so working parents can share information and offer support.  Because even with internet research in the middle of the night, what working parent with an 8 or 14-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome has the time or energy to shoulder more than they already are?  Employers also need to recognize that today’s children with an autism spectrum disorder will likely be tomorrow’s employees programming their computer system or writing their corporate manual.  And in terms of society, everyone needs to begin to understand autism differently, for many pre-conceived notions from years ago are as outdated as go-go boots and wall telephones.

One in 50 children has autism.  It impacts everyone and is a genuine crisis.  Trust me, I know.

 

 

“Leaning In” By Another Name

I know that there are going to be people who vehemently disagree with my thoughts on this, but that’s okay.  I tend to speak up and out particularly if I believe others may be harmed or excluded in some way.  This is no different.

Several days ago, I heard Sheryl Sandberg say that “not all women can do what I do.”  I stopped for a minute before my head blew off my shoulders, only to conclude that regardless of whether you interpreted this statement as “I’m giddy because I have access to supports and opportunities that other women don’t” or  “I’m smarter/more capable than the rest of you,” it set me off.

Sandberg’s premise that women need to “lean in” in order to achieve, be successful, be recognized as strong negotiators or leaders … all assume that women are somehow either sitting on their behinds watching the world pass by or are hoping that, someday or somehow, someone (perhaps on a white horse) will recognize their efforts and reward them accordingly.  Her advice that women take more risks and fantasize about their careers assumes that women at any age/stage either aren’t or haven’t been doing so, or that working mothers in particular have the time or resources to be *able* to take these risks or imagine themselves elsewhere.  Risk-taking and dreaming are great, but neither pays the bills.

For a woman who makes an income with more zeros than most people – women or men – will ever make … for a woman with the convenience of having a nursery attached to her office so she can easily soothe her child … for a woman who extols the wonders of having a spouse who helps with the housework and how this makes all the difference … as far as I’m concerned, this is bullying … albeit wrapped in a nicer package.

You might say, “Hey…this is an awfully harsh comparison to make to a woman whose purpose is to motivate women to reach high.”  I think otherwise.  Why?  Because while bullying takes all forms, there are commonalities – bullying makes the recipient feel bad about themselves.  Makes them question their worth…wonder if they belong…makes them feel  “less than” or somehow lacking.  And yes, I’m vocal about bullying in all forms and ways.

Whether Sandberg cares to acknowledge it or not, there are millions of women “leaning in” every day to be both Mom and Dad as single parents, struggling to maintain their families and their lives.  Millions doing the daily juggling act of work deadlines, sick kids, aging parents, and managing a marriage and home.  Millions whose education, skills, experience, and yes…drive could easily match Sandberg’s, yet situations and life have altered their paths.  Does this mean they aren’t working hard or smart enough?  That they’re slackers who need a swift kick to shift out of neutral and into gear?  I think not.

It seems to me that we’re on a collision course between women who define their achievements in terms of rank and salary and those who see their lives and success differently.  Sure, what woman wouldn’t like to be making more and have more flexibility and resources at her disposal.  But rewards and recognition – both in business and in life – are personal measures that shouldn’t be open to scrutiny by others *unless* they are opening their hands to help.  Real help in real ways.  Women have made huge strides over the past 20 years, in part because other women have reached out – not down – to open doors, offer guidance, and lead the way.  That’s why telling women how they’re doing things wrong and making women feel bad about themselves is leading us to a critical fork in the road.

The whole “lean in” concept assumes that women haven’t been trying hard enough or haven’t been striving to reach the bar, placing many on the fringe as outsiders vs. bringing them into the fold as part of a whole.  It reminds me of those dreadful middle school years where cliques of girls would verbally spar with each other to achieve status.  And we know which girls always worked the hardest – and yes, even the smartest – for recognition and acceptance and received it the least.  Isn’t it time to forget the catch phrases which alienate and start recognizing that “leaning in” is just one of the many things women are already doing – and doing quite well – and applaud them for such?

Beating The Drum A Bit More…Telecommuting, Etc.

For the past few weeks, everyone has been either talking or reading about Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telecommuting for Yahoo employees.  I’ve read just about every viewpoint – those who support it, those who vehemently disagree with it, those who believe it’s smart business, those who are waiting for Mayer to realize the error of her ways.

I’ve already made my perspectives clear on it – it’s a bad business decision, the impact of which go beyond the in-house fallout and anticipated revolving door of exit interviews (if Yahoo even cares to listen) to broader concerns about how the CEO world is going to react/respond.  No question this is a major blow to the years of progress made in the workplace flexibility arena.  But there’s a little more to be said.

I just read a 2011 Forbes article  – “What Employees Want More Than A Raise,” which reviewed the top drivers of retention.  Care to guess one which was at the top of the list?  Respect.  Hum … respect.  Let’s see…

  • Can a company be viewed as “respecting” its employees if their diverse needs and complicated work/life balance issues are ignored…or worse, shoved aside entirely?
  • Can a company support any contention that it “respects” its employees if management institutes mandates (i.e. you will be at your desk every day at 9:00 a.m.) vs. opening up for discussion – yes, across the organization – operational changes being evaluated (i.e. we’re exploring ways to modify our telecommuting policies and are asking for your input)?
  • Can a company view themselves as “respecting” the manager/employee relationship when decisions are made based upon explanations (i.e. the need for communication and collaboration) that simply don’t add up?

It’s probably clear where I’m heading with this…the answer is no.  Respect is far more than a term in a mission statement or something taught in a Management 101 class.  It’s recognizing that communication happens top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, and side-to-side.  It’s understanding that collaboration means working together on difficult issues, appreciating the impact major decisions will have on employees, and offering real, viable options that truly demonstrate that every employee is valuable and, you got it, respected.

No…I don’t see anything about this decision that demonstrates respect.  Rather, whether it was Yahoo’s way to weed out non-performers or demonstrate that they can exercise control over their workforce, it’s pretty apparent – no matter your perspective on the decision itself – that “respect” for its employees was not even a discussion point during that meeting.

Struggling Kids Become Adults … Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I’m sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities – learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental.

This isn’t about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it’s about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It’s about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger’s Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here’s the reality – acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I’ve read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we’ve heard about this for some time.  And while I’ll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to “smoke and mirror” their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes – and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters – because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn’t just appear…many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn’t a parent who doesn’t want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won’t be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won’t find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn’t it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they’re young, instead of hoping they’ll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.

So What Makes A Best Company “Best”

I admit it…I love reading the annual “best company” lists.   Seeing what new organizations have finally reached the holy grail and those that continue to rise to the top year after year by setting the employee engagement and retention bar high.   It’s an added bonus to read about the “perks”, or what I call “mini-benefits”, companies provide for employees.  They get more creative (or outrageous) year after year.

This year’s Fortune list is no different.   To not share a few of my favorites would be like recommending a vacation spot sans photos so yes, a handful follow below.  But first is a shout-out to the tenacious HR and work/life pros whose efforts to sell these ideas to the C-suite when budgets are being cut is exactly what HR is all about…remaining firmly focused on meeting and exceeding the needs of their employees.

So which companies really grabbed my attention this year and why?

  • Boston Consulting Group – issues a “red zone report” to flag when an employee is working excessive long weeks (now *this* is a genuine focus on work/life balance and concerns for the health/stress of employees).
  • Salesforce.com – provides 48 hours of paid time to volunteer (great way to support having a life and involvement outside of the office).
  • Alston & Bird – provides health coverage for autism, infertility, and marriage counseling (talk about an organization that understands and is willing to support life’s “real” issues and complexities).
  • ARI – offers unlimited tuition reimbursement (this is career development on overdrive and supports the importance of continuous learning).
  • Teksystems – encourages employees to “share almost everything” about their personal lives (not sure how this is implemented, but it definitely establishes an environment geared toward breaking down barriers on issues that are typically left unspoken).

It’s easy to see why these organizations achieved “best company” status.  Their bottom-line success is directly tied to an organizational culture that “walks the talk” when it comes to understanding and supporting the diverse nature of their respective workforces and their needs.  HR may have “made the case,” however these organizations clearly have leaders who set the tone. But wait…there’s more.

The dog talent show and bring your dog to work day (not sure why all the focus on dogs – what about cats or rabbits).  Horseshoe throwing lessons.  “Pie your manager” competitions.  Mid-morning cider and donuts.  Steak cookouts.  On-site farmers markets (very cool, I must say).

Are these fun?  Unusual?  Great fodder for social media photos?  You bet, but there’s a huge difference between providing health coverage for infertility and offering donuts with cider (and I enjoy cider too).  The former drills down into issues – often complex, messy, and human – whereas the latter is like sprinkles on a cake – they may make things look better, but don’t necessarily change the taste.

Companies that have achieved “best” status have done so because they’ve addressed the real needs and tough issues facing their employees.  They’ve met employees where they are in their lives with an honest recognition and response, demonstrating their willingness – and desire – to do something about the life cycle challenges their employees are facing today or may face tomorrow.

Ask any employee who works at these organizations and I guarantee that a nod of approval to volunteer in their community or to be told to reduce their work hours to better manage their stress trumps bringing their dog to work for the day anytime.  We’re a culture that often uses words without really understanding their meaning.  For this year’s 100 “best” companies, the meaning is as it is intended … “that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable.”