ast night I read an opinion piece in The New York Times called "Take your baby to work". The opinion was written by Sarita James, CEO of Embark, a college admissions software company. After having her third child, Ms. James decided to return to the office when her newborn, Uma, was six weeks old. Here's the catch. She returned to her work at Embark with her child in tow. Ms. James then goes on to discuss the virtues of having an "office baby" around (analogizing the baby to an "office dog"), how the presence of a baby changed even the most reserved employee and how she was able to spend time with her daughter while still being able to work. She discusses that her daughter enjoyed being in a sling and how "baby carrying has been shown to reduce crying and fussing", how she overcame her self-consciousness "and fed her under a nursing cover", and how she would walk around the waiting area when her baby became fussy.
This article pissed me off.
While Ms. Jones acknowledges her privilege ("Of course, I’m a chief executive; I’m answerable to my board but didn’t have a manager to tell me no"), she is hopeful that other managers "will follow her example." In my humble opinion, this is a bunch of hogwash. Instead of using her powerful voice to advocate for women and men to have more, unfettered paid time-off with their newborns, or encouraging employers to provide flexible work arrangements that help parents achieve more of a work/life balance, this woman is telling others to bring their babies to work! NO! What message is she sending to her female employees? That instead of taking advantage of the company's paid leave policy for new mothers, she expects them to come back to the office with their children earlier than expected?
At least she acknowledges that this type of situation would only work for those who are not "a cook, a doctor, a bus driver or a welder". But the rest of her proposal is oozing with unapologetic privilege. She makes flip comments that this model could work for others if their employers agree. As if it were that easy. For those who are not in the C-suite of their companies, getting an employer to agree IS the battle. It's not easy walking into an HR office and asking for a benefit especially when you are towards the bottom of the totem pole. We have laws in place like the Family Medical Leave Act precisely to protect those vulnerable workers against their almighty employers.
I remember being a junior associate at a large law firm, eighteen weeks pregnant with my son. I was told by the more seasoned female attorneys to keep my pregnancy under cover for as long as possible because my work would start to dry up as people would not want me on their deals. This was 2009. Thankfully I worked in a practice area balanced with female partners, an anomaly at a large law firm, and my pregnancy was met with support and excitement. But in corporate environments where even the mention of pregnancy can send partners in search of your single, younger male counterparts or threaten the time and dedication you already invested in your career, the thought of asking to bring my weeks-old baby to the office while I work is beyond preposterous.
She then talks about an interaction she had with her client who remarked about how pleased she was with the session and about the good behavior of her daughter. What would have happened if her daughter were screaming and crying the whole time? What would have happened if she had colic? When does bringing a baby into the workplace create a true distraction? This particular situation worked for Ms. James because her child was quiet, accommodating and well-behaved, but she cannot peddle this as a solution for others because every child, situation and work environment is completely different.
I was lucky and fortunate to take advantage of the generous maternal leave policy offered by my firm. I was able to spend 6 months at home with my son (4 months of which were paid). I cannot even imagine what I would have done if I had to go back to work after the federally-protected 12-weeks of unpaid leave. But, parents, especially women, are having to do it ALL the time, in all sorts of jobs, all over the country. They are having to make the tough choice of going back to work to less than accommodating environments (sometimes paying exorbitant childcare costs) or staying at home.
There have been so many articles that have been written about America's dismal parental leave policies compared to other countries. According to a Pew research study published in September 2016, the U.S. is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. What does that say about our culture?
In a time when new parents, especially mothers, are struggling to create a work/life balance that is fair, respectful, decent and empowering, I think that advocating for solutions such as those proposed by Ms. James completely miss the mark. It's nice to think that bringing your baby to work for the baby's first few months will be met with open arms, but what happens after the baby "graduates" from this program? How does the workplace accommodate the parents then? We need to focus our attention on making parental leave policies universal along with offering new parents flexible work arrangements that suit different lifestyles. It is after achieving these crucial milestones that we will be able to truly appreciate a baby in the workplace. Until then, keep your baby at home.