In my last job at a health care trade association, I started a “Returning to Work Community” for new parents. (I wrote in some detail here about how I started that group). At the time, I had just given birth to my second child. And I was laser focused on the needs of new mothers. My office generally had a family-friendly culture, but there was no structured way for new parents to learn from one another.
A few years later, I transitioned back to the law firm world. And I once again discovered a void. There were affinity groups focused on a number of issues. But nothing specifically designed to support parents. So, I made it my mission to get such a group off the ground. I am a huge believer in the importance of community to our mental health. I also believe deeply in the power that comes from colleagues sharing lessons learned.
Having been actively involved in getting two of these working parent-type groups started, I wanted to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Are you inspired to build a gender-neutral working parent community at your own workplace?
If so, it’s worth thinking through these 5 issues first:
- Have both Mom and Dad Co-Chairs from the Start. The first group I launched was gender neutral in name. It was expressly open to both moms and dads. But, it really wound up being a community of new moms (at least while I was there and involved). In Round 2, at my law firm, I was very much focused on ensuring we had engagement from all parents from the beginning. A dad from our firm’s New York office and I became the group’s founding Co-Chairs. And we’ve collaborated on everything related to the group since its inception. I’m delighted to report that at all of our events to date, we’ve had equal participation by the men and women parents in the office. I’ve also had dads express their appreciation for having a community to tap into. “We never get to talk about this stuff,” one of them said to me after a lunch meeting of our local DC group. His comment helped me to realize that while there are any number of mom communities out there that many of us join, the community options just aren’t as robust for dads.
- Do *not* launch the group through the organization’s “Women’s Initiative.” I took to heart this wonderful advice from the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance. Yes, the initial conversations around the need for this type of community may have occurred in the context of the firm’s women’s committee. But that didn’t mean the women’s group had to give birth to this working parent group. In fact, to my point above about wanting to ensure equal participation by moms and dads, it became extremely important that the group not be a child of the firm’s women’s committee.
- Be patient. All organizations are different. My experience in getting the requisite approvals to start a working parents group varied greatly. As you can imagine, there are some differences between the 600 employee not-for-profit trade association where I previously worked, and the large law firm where I am now. In the former case, I socialized my idea with my boss, took it to HR, and voila, I got the green light to move forward. We were up and running in a matter of weeks. At the firm, things necessarily took much longer. The idea needed to work its way through a number of different channels before we could start the group. A wonderful colleague in HR ultimately championed the cause. She was instrumental in guiding the idea through those various levels of approval. My own challenge here was to be patient and trust that the group would eventually exist. (I still struggle with the idea of approvals and patience, as we work to gain permission to expand the group to non-attorney professionals.)
- Think about naming conventions. At my firm, there is a convention for how affinity groups get named. There’s the Asian Professional Network, the Black Professional Network, the Latin Professional Network, and the LGBT Professional Network. So, it made sense for this new group to be called the Parent Professional Network. It also made sense for it to “live” under the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, along with the other networks. The first time around, with the “Returning to Work Community,” I was really focused on brand new parents. And was making things up as I went along. Had I to do it over, I’d probably have gone with a name that was more inclusive to parents of kids of all ages.
- Brown bag lunches rock. The foundational aspect of both working parent groups I’ve launched has been a regularly scheduled brown bag lunch. At the trade association, we met monthly in a conference room to share ideas. And we occasionally invited “experienced parents” to join us for these discussions. At the firm, we’ve decided on a series of quarterly national calls with scheduled programming, to allow us to connect across offices. Then, we have informal local office-based events in the intervening months. The best part about running this type of group brown-bag style? You don’t need a budget!
The most important tip is just to get started. If you’re craving a working parent community at your office, go for it. And watch out. If I ever come to work at your organization, you can bet I won’t be there long before a working parent group pops up. I challenge you to beat me to it!
If you need more help getting your head in a better place to return to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.