“Five things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during these anxious times” with Mary Beth Ferrante

For working parents juggling caretaking and their career literally at the same time, the lack of support and connection can be extremely overwhelming. When possible, connect virtually with other parents and share in the struggle. Yes, we are all juggling the weight of the pandemic differently but there is often more common ground than we […]

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For working parents juggling caretaking and their career literally at the same time, the lack of support and connection can be extremely overwhelming. When possible, connect virtually with other parents and share in the struggle. Yes, we are all juggling the weight of the pandemic differently but there is often more common ground than we expect. Simply sharing our stories can open up a dialog and allows you to connect in new ways.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Beth Ferrante.

Mary Beth is a mom of 2, advocate for creating inclusive workplaces for parents and the Co-Founder & CEO of WRK/360, a platform designed to retain and attract working parents by providing programming and personalized support for managers, teams, and leaders. As a former SVP in the finance industry, she always valued growing my career and like so many other career-driven mamas, she was surprised to hit the Maternal Wall. Her own experience propelled her to dive deeper into maternal bias, to influence changes to workplace culture and to advocate for a national paid leave policy. Her work has been featured in ForbesToday,Working MotherFairyGodBossScaryMommy, and more.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Quite simply, becoming a mother changed my entire career trajectory and inspired the creation of WRK/360. I had always envisioned that I would be a working mother. All of the influential women in my life are working mothers, including my own mom, sister, aunt, and cousin and financially living in Los Angeles, two incomes are pretty much necessary. So I knew that continuing my career and becoming a mother were not mutually exclusive. Yet as soon as I found out I was pregnant, my own doubts began to creep in and I was nervous to even share the news. I worked on an all-male team and my boss had recently taken a minimal “paternity leave” yet stayed 100% plugged in, attending all meetings, answering emails to the point where most people didn’t even realize he was technically on leave.

I was privileged to have access to 12 weeks paid leave (something less than 20% of Americans is lucky enough to have and the reason 25% of birthing mothers return to work within 2 weeks), and I was even promoted to SVP while out on maternity leave, yet it was the return to work felt especially difficult. My baby wasn’t sleeping through the night yet. I was still struggling with breastfeeding. I walked back into work carrying a medical-grade pump and was met with a full slate of projects by the end of day one and was quickly back to working nights, weekends, still trying to maintain the availability and flexibility of the “ideal employee.” At the same time, I was trying to rise to the expectations and pressure of modern motherhood. There was no playbook, no one on my team or extended team that was juggling young children. The women who were mothers all had older children and simply encouraged me to power through.

As an older millennial I am part of a generation that was told we could have it all…if we just tried hard enough, planned and organized better, got up earlier, etc. There was no mention of the bias that impacts mothers or the lack of structural support for working parents in the U.S. It’s all on us. And when you feel like you are failing — at work, at parenting or at both — it’s because you are doing something wrong. But it wasn’t that I was doing something wrong. It was that I had run smack dab into the maternal wall.

The maternal wall essentially accounts for all of the stereotypes and bias, unconscious or conscious that impacts a woman when she becomes a mother. It is the fact that in the U.S. there is a pretty clear vision of what it means to be the perfect employee… someone who is available 24/7, quick to reply, can easily change plans, travel, stay late, etc. And at the same time, we have a vision of what it means to be a perfect mother — one that is available to her children and her family 24/7. According to Pew Research, 60% of American adults believe that one parent needs to stay home. Motherhood is one of the biggest reasons we are still fighting for gender parity in senior leadership positions and only 1 in 5 executives today is a woman and it directly contributes to the pay gap.

So I set out on a complete career change, with a 4-month-old no less! I completed my training with CRR Global in Organizational & Relationship Coaching and am certified by the International Coach Federation. I started coaching new parents, most new mothers. Yet as I continued to dive deeper into this work, it became clear that a critical component to driving change is not just supporting new mothers, but all new parents and includes training leaders and influencing culture. With the collaboration of my co-founder Sienna Babb, my work evolved and together we created WRK/360 in 2019 to provide a career development platform that supports all parents throughout their career journey and trains managers to better support working parents and provide an inclusive culture.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving by Caitlyn Collins takes a deep dive into motherhood across four different countries, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the U.S. While I knew that the U.S. was woefully behind other countries, what was so striking about this book was how much women in the United States blame themselves for the inability to “manage it all.” Working motherhood is challenging across the world and most new parents struggle with being an ideal employee and ideal parent, but in the U.S. the lack of cultural and structural support are huge factors as to why working parents feel like we are failing and we can change that!

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious about the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The corona crisis is exposing many of the challenges working parents face on a normal basis, lack of access to paid family and medical leave, lack of access to paid sick time to care for themselves and dependents and the regular breakdowns in childcare. The FFCRA legislation, while temporary, shows that Congress can come together to support legislation that will ultimately support working families.

My hope is that as we come out of the coronavirus crisis, that we will have fueled new momentum to go beyond temporary legislation and make sustainable change for working families. Before this crisis, 80% of American supported paid family leave and we have already seen progress over the last year in the Ways and Means committee as Democrats and Republicans have come together in support of a national paid family and medical leave policy. Now more than ever there is an opportunity for bipartisan support to provide high quality paid family and medical leave that supports new parents, caring for a sick family member and caring for themselves.

In addition to paid family and medical leave, I believe coming out of this crisis there will also be a greater understanding of the need for childcare support for working families. While most families are not normally juggling a full time job while simultaneously homeschool and providing full time day care, families do normally juggle school closures, sick care providers and a myriad of other challenges that disrupt normal care for our children. While I would love for congressional leaders to support universal childcare legislation, I do think that at a minimum employers should now understand the value for childcare benefits, such as back up care and childcare subsidies.

From a gender equity perspective, it would be naive to say that men and women are equally sharing the mental load and day-to-day responsibilities of caring for their children, even in dual career couples where both parents are working remotely. But even if statistically men are not taking on the lion share of the work, men working remotely are now faced to face with the reality of care work. Even in my own relationship that is more egalitarian than most, my husband has been frustrated with the amount of work going into caring for our two preschool-aged daughters while navigating the day to day of our jobs without any extra help. And while the frustration can be an additional challenge, he has also vocalized just how much goes into managing our household each day. My hope is that men will step up to share more responsibilities with their partners but to also bring a new level of empathy and understanding into the workplace as leaders and peers of working mothers to end #secretparenting at work.

To that end, with parents literally juggling work and caregiving simultaneously out of their homes, the wall between home and work is cracking! Just today, during a webinar we hosted for HR leaders, a parent called out that you might hear their two-year-old in the background demanding snacks, and then quickly moved into asking their question. From babies to teenagers, life is happening loudly around us while we connecting with colleagues and clients alike. As life returns to some semblance of normal and we return to offices, my hope is that wall between work and home falls. That all working parents are able to share their responsibilities to their families without stigma or questioning a parent’s commitment to their career. Ultimately my hope is that #parentingoutloud at work becomes normal.

Finally, we are currently in the middle of the largest remote work experiment! While it is far from a perfect experiment — parents lack normal childcare, business continuity, compliance and security are not ideal — it is showing many resistant employers that remote work and flexibility is possible! Employees across the country are proving that yes, they can be productive and effective outside of a traditional office environment and even outside of traditional 8–6 hours as many parents are flexing their hours around online learning and caregiving. For companies that have not embraced flexibility or remote working, there is an opportunity for organizations to take another look and build flexibility into their cultures.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

You are not alone. Yes, we may be socially distancing but the uncertainty and the ever-changing situation surrounding COVID-19 mean few, if any, are immune to feeling anxiety.

I recently spoke on a panel with two of my amazing colleagues, Amy Henderson of Tendlabs and Christine Michael Carter, creator of Momprenuer and me. The number one thing we all recommended is to simply allow ourselves to feel. Pushing through or ignoring our feelings is only going to lead us to an eventual breakdown. So when you are feeling anxious, start by recognizing the feeling and asking yourself what you need instead of trying to push through.

In recognizing the feelings, also tap into what you need. Self-care has been a buzz word for years but it often feels like another to-do on a long list. Now is the time to start trying on some of those self-care strategies and find out what works for you. During the 2020Mom conference earlier this year, I sat with a large group of mothers and we spoke of some of our own self-care strategies. From exercise to meditation to Netflix binges. As we shared what was working for us, we were also pushed to reflect on whether or not those things really were actually helpful. How effective was our self-care activity? Did it work for what we needed at the moment? It’s not meant to judge the activity but instead to reflect on its usefulness. Trust me, sometimes a netflix binge (usually of a comfort show I’ve seen a million times) is exactly what I need!

Especially for working parents juggling caretaking and their career literally at the same time, the lack of support and connection can be extremely overwhelming. When possible, connect virtually with other parents and share in the struggle. Yes, we are all juggling the weight of the pandemic differently but there is often more common ground than we expect. Simply sharing our stories can open up a dialog and allows you to connect in new ways.

That said, be wary of too many virtual connections. Currently, there is a lot of social media encouraging us to come out of this time better in some way, from losing weight to starting that side hustle we’ve been dreaming of. And while that may work for some people, for most working parents we are simply trying to squeeze in productive hours alongside caring for and homeschooling our children. So if the latest meme of the ideal homeschool schedule or picture of your neighbor producing full-on science experiments in her kitchen are causing you more stress and anxiety, it’s time to take a break. Same with the news! Yes, we need to stay informed, but instead of consuming the onslaught of notifications and updates, choose a 1–3 times a day to check-in and get the updates you need.

Finally, seek help. Beyond connecting with friends, other parents, family members, and asking for help, know that resources are available now to help support you through this crazy time. Virtual telehealth services, particularly mental health services can help you navigate your own anxiety.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

When it comes to the juggle of managing your career and childcare and school disruptions, WRK/360 has put together some tools to support working parents, especially those transitioning to parental leave and returning to work during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to these tactile tools, health services have really stepped up in this time of need! Tempest has put together this incredible document of mental health services and the FamTech collective, a group of 27 founders committed to supporting families, have found unique ways to support parents!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My girls are 4 and 2 so as you can imagine, Frozen 2 is playing almost daily in my household. I have found myself channeling Anna on a daily basis, reminding myself to “just do the next right thing. Take a step, step again, It is all that I can to do, The next right thing.”

This is an unprecedented situation with information changing rapidly, so it truly is all we can do to simply just take another step each day based on the knowledge we have in the moment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

While there are so many worthy movements and causes that we could all be working on, given my work with companies to provide better support to working parents, the number one thing I’m focused on is a federal paid family and medical leave policy. We are seeing this firsthand with coronavirus just how much we need paid FMLA. Giving individuals and families the ability to care for themselves, an ill parent or child, or a newborn is critical to supporting working families and women in the workplace.

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