Until only very recently, the conversation around work-life balance for parents has focused narrowly on maternity leave. But even as men redefine their parenting roles, the conversation still revolves around the first year or two of parenthood, missing the reality that for many parents, it's teenagers—not babies or toddlers—that pose even bigger challenges to navigating career and family.
Sleep-deprived new parents will surely disagree, but plenty of their counterparts some 12 to 15 years further down the parenting road have a message for them: Just you wait.
"Toddlers just hand you an empty juice box to get rid of, but teenagers hand you an emotional package to deal with," Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO and president of the New America Foundation, recently told me. "And the significance of that package is profound."
In 2012, Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" for The Atlantic set off a wide-ranging debate on the challenges 21st-century working women still face as mothers and professionals. In it, she describes leaving her "dream job" as director of policy planning in the State Department under Hillary Clinton while her husband fell into the role, as he later put it, of "lead parent."
It was only when their eldest son hit a challenging teen period that Slaughter says she really felt pulled home. As she writes in her latest book, Unfinished Business, "My son was constantly on my mind. As much as I loved the work I was doing, I would get a call or a text with the latest update, and wonder why on earth I was sitting in D.C. when my son needed me in Princeton."
Her experience captures the complex, unpredictable needs and challenges teenagers face—from managing school, friends, sex, drugs, and self-esteem, to their college and career prospects—many of which are full of variables parents can't control, and therefore can't easily outsource or delegate.
In three years, my eldest child will be a teenager, and I’ve recently started to focus on strategies I can put in place today in order to position me to navigate that stage—from both personal and professional standpoints—as best I can.
The expanding on-demand economy creates some precariousness for plenty of those who embrace it, particularly at the lower end of the income scale. But for many knowledge workers, it's offering a growing range of opportunities to combine career advancement with more flexibility and autonomy—meaning increased capacity to adjust to your teen’s needs and schedule.
Those of us with more traditional jobs may not even be aware that we're already picking up some of the skills and habits that can make the transition to full-time independent work relatively smooth. Remote and flexible work arrangements are now commonplace, and so are the tools that make them possible. Sophisticated platforms like OpenWork, Upworks, and Kahuso, not to mention the proliferation of coworking spaces, can help make a gig-based career convenient and productive.
A shift in mind-set hasn't been long in following, either, and a position as a high-caliber independent worker is no longer instantly synonymous with a career setback or the "mommy track."
What's more, becoming an independent worker doesn't mean going it alone. In fact, building support networks can be crucial for parents of teenagers, no matter what shape your career takes by then.
For Kirstine Stewart, VP media North America at Twitter, best-selling author of Our Turn, and mother to two teenagers, both team-building as a family and creating external support systems have been essential.
"The parenting books prepare you for those early years when there’s such a big physical dependence, but the shift to the teen years is more about emotional support," she explains. "My girls are 15 and 19, and fostering a sense of the family as a team and then building our outside support team is what’s worked for us."
"I’ve always deliberately involved my daughters in my life as a working parent, and not isolated them from the demands and choices I have to make," Stewart tells me.
"This way, they understand that even if I’m not at every recital, I’m always available to them. It’s about being there when it matters, and not punching a 'time spent' clock."
For professionals who are raising teens, a home workspace—whether that's a dedicated room with a door that closes or just a desk in the corner of the living room—can go a long way.
As Melissa LaFlair, the founder of a legal and project management consultancy and parent to one 13- and one 14-year-old, tells me, it isn't necessarily about zoning off family life in order to focus on work. "My home office makes it easier to keep my finger on the pulse of my family," she says.
"Even if I’m on a call or working toward a deadline, when my children get home, I can generally tell if their energy is good, or if they’ve had a bad day. Even if we can’t or don’t necessarily talk about it right then and there, I get a sense of when I need to reach out and dig about to find out what’s going on."
You may not have the space or the means to set up a full-fledged home office, and you may not even see a reason to. But if your children aren't yet teenagers, it's probably a good idea to find a spot at home that you can physically designate as yours. Get into the habit of regularly using it—even one morning or afternoon a week when you work from home can help—so you can get into the practice, and your children can begin to understand what that space is for and why they need to respect it.
Right now—and no matter what preparations you make—perhaps the biggest challenge that all parents (or anyone with care commitments) face is the cultural tyranny of what Slaughter and others have described as the "ideal worker."
As she wrote recently for Wired, "You’re in constant competition with a hypothetical employee who shows up early, makes every meeting, never gets sick, says yes to every new project, is constantly available on mobile devices, and can jet off on a work trip at a moment’s notice."
A pernicious fiction, the "ideal worker" is either single or has a stay-at-home partner who fully manages family life and the homefront at large. The ideal worker loves face-time, last-minute meetings at 5 p.m., and responding to emails at all hours. To them, achieving productivity is mostly irrelevant; they're never not getting something done.
It’s time to bring the ideal worker down. And it's time to stop imagining—and letting others imagine or unfairly expect—that successfully balancing a career and family life can be done without making bigger changes to the way we work than we so far have.
Parenting isn't something that happens just within the 12 weeks after a child is born. It continues for years and usually only gets more complicated. And ask anyone who's cared for an aging or ailing parent, and they'll tell you that "parenting" takes on another meaning altogether at that stage, too.
So let's start today: Support a colleague who needs to work from home. Call into a meeting instead of commuting, and don't forget that that school play or softball game is as important as any client dinner. Employers shouldn't forget that, either.
Looking back, Slaughter reflects, "I wished I had found some daily ritual that provided the same point of connection [with my kids] that reading to them every night did when they were little."
Those points of connection, unlike so many others, can't be rescheduled.