What Working Parents Can Do to Feel More In Control

Executive coach Daisy Dowling, author of the new book "Workparent", offers insight into how working parents can stay above water.

by Adam Bulger
a dad and his child sit at a table; the kid is on his shoulders

When executive coach Daisy Dowling first became a parent, she was shocked to see her professional training and expertise fall short.

“I was supposed to be the career expert,” she says. “And I immediately realized that I didn’t know a lot. I didn’t know how to find care. I didn’t know how to tell my boss that I was still interested in promotion even though I just had a baby. I didn’t know any of it.”

To prevent fellow parents from feeling the same helplessness, and to push for larger change on their behalf, Dowling became an ally to working parents. Now a mother of two, she regularly advises parents and the organizations that employ them through her executive coaching and training firm Workparent. Her newly published book Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids, compliments that mission, and features lived-in advice and insight from a diverse range of parents who succeed both at work and the home. The result is an valuable mix of guidance for handling practical challenges (i.e.: when returning to work after parental leave, come back on a Thursday) as well as more nuanced issues, such as dealing with difficult feelings and less-than-supportive coworkers when you’re trying to connect with without sacrificing professional ambitions.

Fatherly spoke to Dowling about her work, the big questions parents have in the workplace, and what working parents can do to feel in control.

What made you want to devote your career to helping working parents?

I spent 15 years helping ambitious, committed people in different fields get to where they wanted to go.

I had advice about taking charge of meetings, establishing good relationships with new teams, or how to delegate. But then people would say, ‘Thanks, I’ll use that advice. But how do I tell my boss that I’m expecting and I actually want to take the paternity leave that we’re offered but nobody here seems to take’? Or ‘Great time management advice. But my time management is that I’ve got to get to daycare pick up at six.’

I was often in a room with one other person with the door closed. I was hearing the real deal. In many one-on-one conversations, people said that if you bring too much of your parenting self to work, it’s going to come at a cost.

And so you didn’t have much advice for them at the time.

I had goose eggs for them. That’s not a great place to be as an executive coach. You want to be helping. You want to be advising and supporting. You don’t have to be all-knowledgeable. But you have to say, ‘Here are some new techniques. Let’s think about what’s going to work and get you a plan.’ And I had to say, ‘Oh, well, that’s important. But let’s get back to the career stuff.’

I felt like I was doing people a disservice. It’s like a physician who only treats the right side of the body and not the left.

The work you’ve done since and now your new book really helps address the myriad issues parents face. For working moms and dads, the work part of work/life balance is often analyzed with clear guidelines around it. But the life part, well, not so much.

If you need work advice, you can get endless high-quality advice. And if you want parenting or health and wellness advice about your non-work life, there’s a lot of awesome stuff about that. There’s really fantastic advice out there for moms returning from parental leave and how to negotiate for parental leave and finding your groove in the first few months back. That’s awesome. It’s needed. It’s powerful. I certainly benefited from some of that advice.

But the problem is that those two things, work and life, aren’t actually discrete spheres. Granted your work-life and your home-life are separate. but you’re just one person. You’re the one who’s standing at the intersection. And you want to figure out how not to get hit.

Your book offers very detailed advice for how working parents should deal with a wide variety of professional challenges. Where did that advice come from?

I reached out to people who seemed with it and together and comfortable with being working parents. Not just fellow moms with very young children, which I was at the time, but also senior people, men, LGBTQ+ parents, and more. And I would say, ‘Hey, I’m a new parent, what advice do you have for me?’

It was awesome. As soon as I asked those questions, even the crustiest, least-friendly person would soften and say, ‘Okay, well, let me tell you, here’s what’s really worked for me, or have you spoken to this other person?’ All of a sudden, I was getting coached. Over a long period of time, I turned that into a more formal research effort and went as diverse as I could.

One key question I got from a lot of parents was about being away from their kids. They wanted to be present and feel like a good parent when work physically takes them away. I spoke to an airline pilot, police officers, critical care nurses, military officers and to people whose work was very hours intensive. My goal was to just get out there and say, Hey, what’s working?

The responses seem to be a mixture of big picture advice and more detail-oriented direction.

When I interviewed a parent in a very demanding, long-hour, highly detailed job, I asked ‘How do you sustain yourself’? They said you’ve got to have something that you go to every day: a habit, a routine, or an activity that relaxes you. And that builds your battery back up. Netflix and Chardonnay do not count. Because those things may relax you, but they don’t replenish you. They’re not restorative. You’ve got to find your thing that works. And if you don’t, you’re on a slide towards burnout.

Many people aren’t sure how to start talking about what they need from their jobs as working parents. The book makes this clear.

People started coming to me saying things like ‘I’m going on parental leave, do you have advice?’ And one day, an ambitious, mid-career guy who I knew hardly at all came into my office and closed the door behind him. I thought ‘He’s gonna give me an earful about bad advice I gave him.’ He said, ‘My wife and I have just found out that we’re expecting, and I hear you’re the person to talk to you about how I can be a great dad and still have the career I want.’ And we sat down, and chatted. Afterward, I thought ‘That’s not right.’

There was a palpable sense of almost nervousness. My office door was closed before he started speaking to me. And a lot of the conversations were about how do you announce this to people around you? What kind of leave time are you going to take? And what does that look like? And how do you message it with your peers? And with people above you? And a lot of the conversation had this shadow of taboo cast over them

I think during the pandemic, a lot of people have become vastly more open. There’s the dad with a toddler running in front of the Zoom call. We’ve become a little bit more inclusive and sensitized.

But a road map is still necessary. There’s so much to consider. And your book provides a great deal of that.

When you’re an expectant dad, you’ve got a lot to worry about. You’ve got your job to think about. However you are welcoming your child, whether you have a pregnant wife or partner, a gestational surrogate, or you’re adopting, you’ve got that process to worry about. You’ve got the baby to worry about, you’ve got your budget to worry about. The list of things that you have to think through is long.

You don’t need to spend even half an hour worrying about how to have a conversation effectively with your manager. If you’re gonna have a difficult conversation, or what you think might be an awkward conversation, here’s how to have it and here’s some actual scripting. You should edit it, make it your own, adapt it, whatever. But have that confidence that there are general guidelines and best practices here. And if you’re grasping for words, don’t waste time grasping for words, just take these words and make them your own.

There’s a lot more active interest in unions and changing parental leave laws and instituting new workplace rights for parents. How does your book’s focus on individuals reflect more collective efforts to change workplaces?

That’s a fantastic question. As an executive coach, my expertise is working one to one with people. I read the newspaper, like everybody else. I have opinions. And I’m certainly passionate about things that come to working parents. But my job is to help you as a working parent, succeed and thrive and be satisfied. The book is a conversation with the reader. It says ‘Here’s how you’re going to do it.’ So that’s very individual and specific.

However, throughout the book, and in my coaching and consulting work, I bang the drum that it’s essential for every individual working mom and dad to be connected with others. You should be part of your working parents network or an Employee Resource Group. If your organization doesn’t have an ERG, look to a community group, your house of worship, your neighborhood association, or your alumni group. Find the working parent gangs, wherever they are, so that you have advice and have that connection to a larger group. Even just by showing up, you’re working towards systemic solutions.

That’s important.

You’re the individual and that’s who I know how best to help. But the more that we connect, the more we’ll know, the more supportive we’ll be and the more that we have a chance to make some of these more systemic changes.

When I’m consulting with senior executives, they ask how to support working parents in our organization. And I believe there are three fundamental ways that you can move the needle in a good direction for working parents. There are policies which can be national or organizational, like determining how long can parents take leaves? There are invaluable programs, which can be national or organizational, things like universal pre-K, or a mentoring program for new parents within your organization.

But the third leg of the stool is practices. So, policies and programs are hugely supportive. What’s your practice in terms of announcing to your colleagues that you have to leave early to get to the pediatrician? Or what’s the practice that allows you to stay physically healthy when you’re working 12 hours a day and have a toddler who’s not sleeping?

I think we all think these problems can be solved and managed and so forth on the congressional floor. And I’m not stepping away from that. But they can also be solved on the conference room floor and on the factory floor and on our kitchen floor.