A coaching client of mine was recently laid off. There were at least a few contributing factors, but one that came up repeatedly when they let her go was her other job: parenthood. The HR director cited an instance when she took a call from her son's school and abruptly left a client meeting. (It was the school nurse. Her son needed urgent medical care.) "This is probably for the best. It seems like you have a lot going on," she was told.
On a call this week, she told me about another colleague with a similar story. She left an eight-hour client focus group for two 15-minute breaks so she could pump for her 8-month-old. A client representative complained and now she's training her replacement. When she's done, she'll probably sue.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I had been on the phone with a client who had been trying for over a year to negotiate a work arrangement that would allow her flexibility for childcare. Her request was repeatedly denied, both by her direct manager and HR. Only one partner in her company had a long-term flexible work arrangement, and she was asked to justify it every pay period. After my client's one-year review, despite her outstanding performance, including helping to secure a multimillion dollar contract, her carefully crafted request for flexibility was denied. She was passed over for bonus. She would effectively be making less than she had the year before. On paper, the company was family friendly, but in practice -- not so much. This client is now in negotiation with another firm. The new job would afford her the time and money to cover childcare for her kids. In her current position, the cost of childcare and additional coverage -- in the absence of flexibility -- requires her to dip into her savings.
I work with some companies that support employees very well. I also know that many companies, even those ranked among the best for working mothers, are anything but friendly in reality. I have heard dozens of cases where clients have sued employers for violating the laws that are set up to protect them. The majority of these women won their cases, but terms of the settlement preclude them from talking about it.
These stories come from the women at the top of their fields. They have advanced degrees, they are committed to their careers, hard-working, driven for success, and they are also engaged parents. The system is not set up for them to succeed.
Hearing these stories all the time can be frustrating. Instead of filing them away, I decided I wanted to hear more. I sent out a request to my extended network: if anyone has a story about how a supposedly "family friendly" company was actually hostile to working parents, please contact me.
In 48 hours, I got dozens of responses:
One woman posted that her HR representative promised to support short-term disability and leave under the Family Medical Leave Act while she was pregnant. The offer was retracted after the baby was born. Apparently, the HR representative didn't have the authority to approve the terms he offered.
A woman who was on a work-from-home schedule she never requested (it was recommended by her boss) was subsequently let go because, despite her outstanding performance review, her schedule "wasn't meshing well with the rest of the staff."
I heard from a lawyer who was among the few women at her firm to make partner after having kids. Once she hit that milestone, she saw the work quickly dry up. She ended up leaving the firm and her partnership behind out of frustration.
A nurse at a well-known hospital described getting flak from her supervisor almost every time she need to pump. Colleagues were constantly knocking on the door, asking when she would be done. While waiting for HR to approve her transfer to another unit, she reduced her pumping to twice a shift. By the time her son was 5 and a half months, she couldn't produce milk anymore. "If there is one thing I could change in my almost four years of parenting, I would have gone to HR and put my foot down about providing milk to my son."
One 40-year-old Senior Vice President of a bank returned from leave after her first child to find that she now had to complete a weekly timesheet. She hadn't been asked to do that in 20 years.
A senior leader frequently worked nights and weekends in her position. She was told that, in exchange for leaving at 3:00 once a week to be with her 10-month-old, she would have to take a pay cut.
These are the women who followed Sheryl Sandberg's example and have "leaned in" as far as they could. They are pushing ahead and aiming to break the glass ceiling. Too many of them find it's just not possible after having kids. It's clear that corporate policies and family-friendly legislation are only part of the picture. It's culture and management that need to change.
There's no easy fix. I tell my clients that they can't wait for their company to anticipate their needs. They should speak in terms of their added value and work outcomes. Still, it's a steep uphill battle for working parent employees.
I can hear the desperation: "The truth is I shouldn't have chosen this field and had kids. I wish I had known that before I trained for it."
Can I honestly tell my daughter and her friends that all professions are open to them? Can women really pursue whatever profession they want, without considering a possibly inevitable dead end? Are there some professions that are just not compatible with the decision to be an engaged parent?
The stories keep coming. Now I want more. I want to identify the companies that "walk the walk" for working parents.
Is your company really family friendly? Anything but? Beyond good policies for leave and flexibility, what makes a company family friendly?
Share your stories with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All responses will be kept strictly confidential.
If there's one thing that researchers have confirmed in recent years, it's that breastfeeding has benefits. And several 2013 studies uncovered even more evidence supporting that fact: One found that breastfeeding longer may help boost babies' intelligence, perhaps because breast milk contains DHA, which has been linked to cognitive development. Another suggested that breastfeeding may be protective against ADHD -- although it did not establish cause and effect (so it might be that other aspects of children's upbringing, for example, or genetics played a role).
A major American Academy of Pediatrics report issued this year concluded that the majority of medications are safe for nursing mothers, despite the fact that many women are counseled to discontinue their use. Some medications do transfer to breast milk, but the amounts tend to be small, while others do not transfer at all. The difficulty, however, is knowing which drugs are safe and which are not. "There are traditional medications, like aspirin, that have been around for years and that we have a lot of information about, we're secure in our knowledge," one doctor told HuffPost. "But there are new drugs coming out all the time, including new antidepressants and antipsychotics, and we know less about them."
Buying and sharing breast milk online has become increasingly popular, but it is not a particularly safe practice, according to data released in 2013. Researchers purchased samples from one of the most popular milk sharing websites in the U.S. and compared them to those from a milk bank (milk banks, which are regulated by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, follow strict guidelines and pasteurize their milk). The online samples had higher levels of contamination, with 64 percent testing positive for staphylococcous, and three of the samples testing positive for salmonella. Though many parents are, understandably, eager to provide their babies breast milk and may not be able to for various reasons, there is no getting around the potential risks: "There is hardly anything that, as a buyer, you could use to determine if a given sample is safe for your baby," the study's researcher told HuffPost.
A comprehensive review conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found that the current U.S. vaccination schedule is safe, and that there is no evidence that immunizing children against polio, whooping cough, measles and other diseases leads to health issues, such as autism or asthma. While the IOM said it hopes the findings will reassure parents and health care providers that current guidelines are safe, it also called for continued monitoring, Reuters reported.
Since the advent of the "back to sleep" campaign (aimed at reducing the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), the number of babies with "positional plagiocephaly" -- medicine-speak for flat spots on their heads -- has soared. A Canada-based study found that more than 46 percent of 2- to 3-month-olds have some form of the condition (most mild). Because the researchers didn't have past figures for comparison's sake, it's entirely possible that this has long been the case, and parents and doctors are just more aware of it now; or it could be because more babies are sleeping on their backs. Whatever the reason, the good news is that flat spots tend to be totally harmless.
It's not just how much sleep kids get, but how regular it is that is important, according to a study out of the U.K. Children with consistent bedtimes scored better on reading, math and tests of spatial skills. And the effects appeared to be cumulative: Children who had inconsistent bedtimes when they were 3 (the researchers asked parents about their kids' bedtimes at ages 3, 5 and 7) scored lower at age 7. And kids who had inconsistent bedtimes at more than one of those ages showed more pronounced effects on their tests. It is not clear yet whether not having a set bedtime is simply a reflection of children living in "chaotic settings" where they were more likely to skip breakfast or have a TV in their room, the researchers wrote or whether the effect was more direct, but sleep experts say the message is clear: "I would tell you that in my estimation, the majority of parents have no idea how important sleep consistency is," one told HuffPost. "It's not because they don't care. They haven't been told."
One of the first studies to take a close look at the amount of sodium in packaged foods made for toddlers found that 70 percent of them exceeded 210 mg of sodium per serving -- the threshold researchers used to classify a food as high sodium. And some of the toddler meals had roughly half of the maximum daily recommendation. Fortunately, baby foods fared better: Almost all of the commercial foods for babies up to one year were relatively low in sodium, the researchers found.
For the first time in decades, childhood obesity rates dropped -- at least among low-income preschoolers between the ages of 2 and 4. These lower rates are, of course, good news but health experts say the overall numbers are still too high: One in 8 preschoolers in the U.S. is considered obese.
A comprehensive New York Times analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released in 2013 uncovered a significant jump in the number of children who were diagnosed with ADHD in the past decade. Up to 11 percent of school-age children have been told they have disorder, according to the Times, for reasons that are not yet understood. It could be, for example, that there is simply more awareness of ADHD or that children are being over-diagnosed. Or, perhaps, there are factors causing ADHD to be more prevalent than before.
The prevalence of parent-reported cases of autism is up from 1 in 86 in 2007 to 1 in 50 between 2011 and 2012,
Research now shows that certain seemingly harmless things can prove risky for children. One study found that televisions injure roughly one child in the U.S. every 30 minutes -- largely by falling on them. Another showed parents should be vigilant when their children are in high chairs (around 9,400 young kids in the U.S. are injured falling off high chairs each year, it concluded). Magnets also pose a risk: The number of yearly swallowing incidents jumped from roughly one child in every 200,000 in 2002 to six per 200,00 in 2010, one study showed). And amusement rides (at parks, fairs, restaurants and malls) injure more than 4,400 children yearly).
A startling study found that when school-age children are bullied by their peers, they're twice as likely to experience so-called "psychosomatic symptoms," including headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, bed wetting and sleep problems. Sometimes, parents and teachers ignore children's physical symptoms or assume they're faking a stomachache, for example, to get out of an activity. But the study emphasizes that adults should take such symptoms seriously, as they might be a sign that something else is going on.
Words matter, and so does the way they are delivered. A study concluded that harsh verbal discipline increases childrens' risk for depression and aggressive behavior (it focused on 13 and 14-year-olds) -- in much the same way that physical punishment often does. "The negative effects of verbal discipline within the two-year period of [the] study were comparable to the effects shown over the same period of time in other studies that focused on physical discipline," one of the researchers said in a statement.
Obesity rates appear to be "cresting" among adolescents and teens, a separate study found. It also concluded that middle and high school students are engaging in healthier behaviors, like eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer sweets; skipping breakfast less often and exercising more. (The study did not establish a causal relationship between these healthier behaviors and the apparent leveling off in childhood obesity rates.) The amount of time spent watching TV also decreased, however, the amount of time teens spent playing video games or chatting online remained largely the same.
The study was highly preliminary and conducted with mice, but it nonetheless generated a lot of attention for its finding that regular marijuana use during adolescence might damage brain function, putting teens at risk for psychiatric disorders down the road. The study is not the final word (indeed, a paper published in 2012 found teen marijuana use does not appear to affect brain tissue health). But as the lead researcher explained, "Over the past 20 years, there has been a major controversy about the long-term effects of marijuana, with some evidence that use in adolescence could be damaging."
Follow Rachael Ellison, MA on Twitter: www.twitter.com/reworkingparent