My early days as a working parent were more complicated than I ever expected. I would attend a “new mommy group” made of highly degreed and accomplished women, but none of us had a clue as to how to successfully return to work—or even whether all of us would.
When I met clothing designer Amy Coe, she was just a few years ahead of me in raising her daughter, but her confidence and success were light years ahead of mine. She took me under her wing and helped me navigate the trickiest job I would ever have: working parent.
She was an excellent mentor on all levels, and I truly cannot imagine how my career would’ve gone without her.
Being a working parent is not something you ease into, nor is it something that gets simpler with time. From managing childcare for the first time to figuring out how to pump at work or manage office politics when your kid is constantly sick, the list of new demands is endless and relentless. It's important to glean tips from people who've done it before.
But my own experience reminds me of the importance of one particular resource that many successful people don’t discuss often enough: a working parent mentor.
Typically, a professional mentor would help you with career guidance, networking, resume advice, whatever. A working parent mentor follows the same basic idea, but is more specialized. This person is your go-to with insights to help you navigate your way through the minefields you didn’t even know existed.
What’s the best way to manage your parental leave, or your sometimes-difficult return to work? What are some tips for getting out of the house in the morning now that you have a baby to wrangle? Are there support groups or specific benefits at your company to help working parents?
Enter the mentor.
Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, underscores the power of parental mentoring. “One powerful way we can help new working moms (editor’s note: and working dads) is by recognizing the tremendous development and growth that goes on during the Fifth Trimester,” or the period right after the newborn haze, when many parents return to work.
Working dads often need mentors, too.
All too frequently, engaged dads are penalized at work—often for simply taking paternity leave at all. Finding other working dads is essential on a personal level, and maybe even a societal level. After all, the more men encourage each other to actually take the parental leave they’re entitled to, the less stigmatized it’ll become.
Depending on the size and diversity of the company where you work, the perfect would-be mentor may sit just a few desks over. That coworker who runs out in the middle of the day when daycare calls to say her toddler has a fever? The one with macaroni art adorning his desk? They’re the ones.
“I mentor because it was not always easy for me and I’ve got plenty of great information to share, information I wish someone would have given me,” says Megan Darmody, Director of Press, Events and Partnerships at UrbanStems.
Some things you might look for in an ideal working-parent mentor:
A parent whose kids are older than yours. When you’re dealing with a teething baby, it can be refreshing to speak with someone who’s way past that point—to remind you that this stage is temporary, and that you’ll probably look back on these days more fondly than you’d expect. Someone with more experience can lend both advice and perspective.
Someone in your industry, or at least with a fairly similar job. After all, a self-employed freelancer might not have many insights for you about how to navigate office politics, and someone who sits behind a computer all day may not be much help if you’re a teacher or a doctor.
If your situation is unique in any way—for example, if you’re a single parent or have a special-needs child—you might see if you can find a mentor who has personal experience in that area, or at least who can empathize and understand your singular challenges.
Someone who’ll always be kind and honest. If she pretends to be the perfect parent, she’s probably not going to be so understanding of your foibles. And if she’s so nice that she doesn’t tell you when she thinks you’re messing up, you’re not going to learn.
Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to work at your current company. You might know someone from a past job, or even from around town (meet at the gym, mentor for life?). The point is simply to find someone with valuable insights to share.
Cheryl Patran, CEO of the Pump Station and Nurtury in Santa Monica, is a strong advocate of peer support. She advises, “Just pick up the phone and ask that new parent you admire or respect for her ideas and feedback—she wants to help as much as you want to be supported.”
Maybe you’re the first of your friends to have a kid, or you work at a small company where there aren’t many other parents. If you don’t have any would-be mentors in mind, consider looking for one online.
Because you’ll likely get the best insights from people in your own industry, try searching for groups by profession.
Ask around to see if anyone’s heard of a group for parents in your industry (your non-parent work friends may’ve heard of these resources, even if they don’t need them yet).
Try searching Facebook directly, as that’s where many of these groups live. (For example, this group is for engineer mothers.) While some are open, many are moderated or closed groups to ensure a modicum of privacy and make members feel more comfortable about speaking freely.
If you can’t find a group specifically for your industry, consider joining this general group for all working moms or a regional group for parents in your area. For example, there are groups for Brooklyn moms, Atlanta moms, Denver moms and practically everything in between. (Want some inspiration? These are the cities with the hardest-working parents.)
Unfortunately, the options for dad groups tend to be less robust, but you might try posting (or getting your partner to post) on a local moms forum to ask whether there are active dad meetups or groups in your area. You might also check out digital resources such as Fatherly and CityDads.
You might find that an online network is exactly what you need for bouncing around ideas or seeking advice. Or you might choose to seek out a one-on-one mentorship after all. These groups can be a great jumping-off point for meeting other parents nearby, and once you’ve made friends you can identify a few who’d make a good one-on-one mentor.
Some mentorships are more formal than others. If you already have a rapport with this person, you might simply grab coffee and share stories about your week (or month, or however often you meet).
In other cases, especially if this is someone you’ve met through work but aren’t independently friends with, you might prefer a somewhat more formalized experience. Having an agenda can prevent those awkward, “So, what do you want to ask me?” “Umm, I don’t know. Want to just chat?” moments.
Structuring your conversations around your top “high” and lowest “low” since the last time you saw each other
Sharing book suggestions (presumably about career advice or parenting, but if you both share a love of fiction, then why not?)
Choosing a specific topic in advance for each meeting, such as family finances or discipline
Attending a networking mixer together
Reading and discussing inspirational stories of successful working parents
Writing out, or sharing, your bucket lists with each other—with both professional and personal goals—both as a form of bonding and to help each other discuss what you’re doing to accomplish each item
Taking a class together, whether in person or through an online course (Coursera and edX have a lot of really interesting, free options, and General Assembly has many classes that might help you in your day job, such as coding or marketing)
Yes, you’re busy and probably don’t have time for some new effort-intensive initiative, but if you don’t have immediate access to the kind of mentorship you crave, you can pretty easily set up a Slack channel, monthly lunch date for the working parents in your network or other informal opportunities to connect.
For example, Jennifer Gilmore helped create a peer program at Campbell’s Soup. “I was fresh back from maternity leave and so I understood the struggles of a parent returning to work,” she says. These days, the group is known as the Campbell Parent ID Connection, and it has since expanded throughout the company via word of mouth.
Of course, you could always start your own group online, too.
In 2013, Louisville, Kentucky-based attorney Michelle Coughlin returned to work as a new mother. “When I looked around me and felt that I was the only mom trying to balance this legal career with parenthood, I felt like I was drowning. I started MothersEsquire because I needed to know I wasn’t alone out there.”
Her group, which started small and highly informally, has grown to be the leading voice at regional and national conferences when it comes to addressing the high attrition rate that the legal profession has come to accept as “normal for women.”
“I have a 6-month-old,” says one mom I know, “so I’m hardly an expert, but I reached out to an expectant mom at my company to let her know that I’m available if she needs anything as she goes on maternity leave and when she returns. I could still use a mentor, myself, but even in these few months I’ve gathered a few insights I’m glad to share.”
As you connect with working parents and share your own earned expertise, don’t keep your workplace peer-mentoring under wraps. Sharing or even presenting the impact of these programs to management can help encourage buy-in, formalize the program and have an even bigger impact.
The bottom line is the bottom line: Low-cost mentoring programs are a straightforward way for employers to help limit attrition, and they can be a point of pride. Mentoring is a valuable recruitment and retention tool.
The possibilities are endless, and very necessary for working parents.
In my own life, I’ve found that these bonds forged in the early days of parenthood really last. My mentors and I have since graduated from sharing tips about feeding babies and figuring out daycare to tips on college tours and admissions!
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