Every day, we are surrounded by images of people who appear to balance a successful career with the tremendous responsibilities of parenting. Everyone from celebrities on magazine covers, to Instagram friends who post photos of daily life, all project a powerful façade that just about anyone can “have it all.”
Based on my own experience as working parent, however, I know that simultaneously meeting the demands of a job and the demands of raising a family isn’t quite so realistic.
To be honest, it usually comes along with the deft use of magic – specifically, smoke and mirrors.
Caring for a sick child at home while on a conference call? Poof! Let my mute button silence the Ninjago episode blaring in the background. Carpool arrangements fall through right before an important presentation? Nothing a series of stealthy texts sent from under the conference room table can’t solve. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I know I’m not the only working parent with a litany of these experiences. We don’t talk about them, because they aren’t exactly our high points as parents, or as employees. But even in highly supportive work environments like my own, they are our reality.
Or at least, they have been. But fortunately, the days of parenting from behind a cloak of secrecy may be coming to an end.
My source for this prophecy is, well, a prophet. Tony Prophet, that is—Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce. Earlier this year, Prophet candidly shared his experience as an executive and father of two children on the mainstage at the Great Place to Work For All Summit.
In his keynote, he said words I’d never heard from an executive.
“If I’m in a meeting, and one of my kids has a fever and is throwing up at school, guess what?” he asked the audience. “You can’t leave a kid throwing up at school!”
He then added with an incredulous tone, “And for those you who don’t have kids? News flash: meeting’s over. See ya.”
At about this time, I’m sure I was manually lifting my jaw back into a closed position. I had just heard a male, C-level tech executive put words to the experience that has been a part of my life for the last 9 years since becoming a working mom. It was the holy grail of working-parent nightmares: managing your kid’s sudden illness in the middle of a busy work day.
But, he did it without apology. Without being delicate. Without smoke and mirrors.
In fact, Tony Prophet was bucking the unspoken contract so many working parents have signed—that in order to manage the often-competing commitments to both work and family, you must also become a master of illusion.
At the Summit, executive after executive began speaking up about their role as corporate leaders and as parents—and the struggles they had faced in building a façade that they could flawlessly manage it all.
Jennifer Morgan, SAP’s Executive Board Member and President, Americas & Asia Pacific Japan shared her story. When her husband—a stay-at-home-dad—got into a temporarily debilitating accident, she found herself simultaneously managing a new promotion at work along with enormous family obligations.
Although she was completely overwhelmed, Morgan admitted, “I was most stressed out about making sure nobody at work thought that I couldn’t handle what was going on. That was my biggest concern.”
Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global and founder of the Huffington Post, shared that her own breaking point came when she collapsed from burnout and broke her cheekbone. As a single mom with two teenaged daughters, she had decided, “I’ll be superwoman,” and would sacrifice sleep to make it all work.
“That was the beginning of my wake-up call,” Huffington shared. “Of looking around and realizing that it wasn’t just me. That hundreds of millions of people around the world are suffering from burnout.”
In the audience of over a thousand people, you could have heard a pin drop as her words resonated.
I personally felt like standing up and cheering. Not because these leaders had struggled—but because they were vulnerable enough to share their struggle, with hundreds of strangers who looked up to them with starry eyes. Strangers who until that moment held the false, unspoken belief that somehow these people had risen to where they were while seamlessly managing the enormous responsibility of child rearing. And that somehow, we should all be capable of the same.
I know I have not worked nearly as hard in my career as those on stage that day. But I do know what it’s like to burn out as a result of managing the never-ending marathon of work and family commitments. My own wake-up call came shortly after my second child was born, when I nearly fainted from exhaustion at a social engagement. That’s when I shifted to a reduced work schedule.
But it took coming first clean with myself, and then with my company, to make it happen.
At Great Place to Work, our research shows that people thrive when they’re able to be themselves at work. And energy spent covering up who you “really” are—whether it’s having a family to care for, having a certain cultural background or sexual orientation, or other qualities you believe are different than what may be desired—only takes away from your ability to contribute the best of what you have to offer.
According to Jennifer Morgan, if we’re ever to collectively crack the façade, it must come from the top. “Leaders have to role model the behaviors we’re talking about and make it okay for everybody else,” she said.
She’s right. By sharing their stories, these executives gave everyone in the audience a small bit of permission to stop with the smoke and mirrors and claim a more authentic life—because they were doing it too.
They showed us that sometimes, the most powerful magic, and maybe even the key to “having it all,” is exposing your truth for all to see.