Caregiving gives parents unmatched skills, and TendLab CEO Amy Henderson tells Adriana Lozada why it’s crucial to support them in bringing all that valuable knowledge and experience to the workplace.
How much parental leave are you able to take? Share about your ideal parental leave set-up with us @birthfulpodcast on social media.
Related Birthful episodes:
- Going Back to Work, with Arianna Taboada
- The Transition into Parenthood, with Elly Taylor
- How You Can Balance the Mental Load
- Emotional Prep for Going Back to Work While Breastfeeding, with Robin Kaplan
- Working While Breastfeeding, with Nancy Mohrbacher
- Back-to-Work Sleep Considerations, with Kim West
- The Forgotten Origins of Paid Parental Leave, New York Times
- We Must Extend Postpartum Medicaid Coverage, Scientific American
- Why Are Americans Still Waiting for Paid Parental Leave? Bloomberg
- The Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story: Unemployment statistics can’t capture the full extent of what women have lost, The Cut
One thing you can do for you is to get serious about setting up your infrastructure of postpartum support. Make sure you and your partner, if you have one, take as much family leave as you can. Make sure your partner and other family members are actively involved in the caretaking of the baby or in taking care of you as you take care of your baby. Maybe get a postpartum doula. And if the company you work for says they want to improve things for their employees that have caretaking responsibilities, that would be you, then connect them with TendLab.
The one thing you can do for the rest of us is learn about and support the efforts of PL+US, which is the Paid Leave for the United States national campaign to win high quality paid family and medical leave for everyone by 2022. They have already won paid family leave for nearly 8 million people. Learn more at paidleave.us.
Why Employers Need to Value Your Parenting Skills
She dropped her fork on the plate and said, “Oh my God, we spend more money than we care to admit training our leaders to develop those skills, and you’re telling me parenthood, possibly more than anything else unlocks them?” And I said, “Yes.”
That’s Amy Henderson talking about the moment she received clear validation about the importance of her research regarding the valuable skills that are gained from being a dedicated caregiver. But there’s a catch. In order for those skills to flourish, you need to be well supported. So, what are those skills and what does proper support look like for working parents? That’s exactly what Amy and I will be talking about today. Now, before we start, Amy mentions that she had placenta previa during her first pregnancy, and in case you don’t know what that is, placenta previa is when the placenta is located in a way that is partially or completely covering the cervix. In many cases, it tends to resolve itself as the uterus gets larger, and basically pulls the placental attachment site up and away from the cervix, but if it doesn’t, then a cesarean birth may be needed.
I’m Adriana Lozada and you’re listening to Birthful, here to inform your intuition. Welcome, Amy, to the podcast. It is lovely to have you here. I’m such a fan of all your work.
Henderson: Oh, I’m such a fan of all of your work and your incredible thought leadership in this space. Really excited to be here.
Lozada: And for the listeners who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and also how you identify?
Henderson: So, I identify as she/her, as a woman. I am a movement builder by background and have now turned my focus to building a movement to change the game for working parents. The last thing I did prior to my current work was I cofounded an organization with Van Jones and the deep support of the rock star, Prince, which was around increasing racial diversity in the tech sector. And while I was running that organization, I accidentally got pregnant with my third kid, and had three under the age of four, and because I’m fortunate to be in the 14% of Americans who had access to paid family leave, while I was out on parental leave with my third child, I started calling up the working moms I most admired and eventually also included dads, to ask, “Look, do I feel like I’m regularly failing at work and at home with my kids because of me and my unique shortcomings and the bad decisions I’ve made? Or is it just this hard to be a working parent in the U.S.?”
And I discovered through 237 interviews that it’s just that hard to be a working parent in the U.S. But the second thing that happened in those conversations was the revelation that we were forging ourselves through the experience, and that we were growing and evolving in ways that possibly nothing else could force us to grow, and that we had gained something, and earned something, and it mattered. But the world around us didn’t see it and we oftentimes didn’t acknowledge it, either, because we were too inundated with all the negative messaging around us.
Lozada: What was that initial difficulty that you were experiencing that made you reach out to all of these people to interview and say, “Hey, is this just me that feels like they’re sucking at this or is this something that’s happening to you, too?” What broke you open?
Henderson: Well, I would say that it had been happening for a long time. You know, my first child, when I got pregnant with her, I was sort of ambivalent about becoming a parent. It wasn’t something that I knew I had to become to feel as though I was a whole and complete woman, mother, human. I just was really passionate about my work and then I met someone who really wanted a family and started to think that would be a great thing to do, and so I got pregnant. And I kind of thought that having kids would be like having a handbag. They would require some polishing, some effort, but I would just pick them up and carry them with me wherever I went, and it wouldn’t impact my life all that much.
And I was five months pregnant with my first when the doctor said, “Look, you can either have your career or your kid, but at the rate you’re going, you can’t have both.” I developed a pretty intense version of placenta previa, so I completely pulled back and ended up staying home for two years. And that experience of staying home with a child blew my mind. I mean, first, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Ever. And I’ve done a lot of hard things.
My circle of friends would come over to visit while I was home with my newborn and up until she was two, and they’d be like, “What do you do all day long?” And I couldn’t tell them, but I knew I was exhausted, and the house was a mess, and I didn’t know where the days went, but they were gone. And I felt as though during that period of time, initially it was incredible, and I discovered this whole world that had been invisible to me. This sweet, tender, slow, deeply relational way of being connected to my newborn and to myself, and to the physical world around me, but it felt so dissonant, because I couldn’t name or give voice to what I was experiencing, and the whole world around me didn’t value it, recognize it, or see it as anything that was visible to them, either.
And so, it felt towards the end of the time staying home, I started to feel as though I didn’t actually exist, like I was some sort of ephemeral ghost-type being that wasn’t an actual human.
Lozada: I can relate to that on so many levels because I find that when I also became a mom, and after having a really busy, high-achieving job, being home felt like all the things that I valued and that gave value to myself and my identity were not there, and so I was lost. And yeah, I agree, I felt like what did I do all day? Nothing. When in fact, you’re sustaining life. We’re just not primed to understand those as positives, and even know they’re coming, so we can prepare for them.
Lozada: Oh, it’s so hard. So, I find that it is one of the hardest moments in life, because if your cup is filled by being alone, you don’t have that, and if your cup is filled by connecting with others, you also don’t have that.
Henderson: Yeah, and you know, to relate it specifically to my experience, and then to talk about what I discovered in the interviews, I ended up staying home for two years with my daughter, and then had a son in that period of time, too. My first two are less than two years apart. And then when my son was three months old, I went back to work and cofounded #YesWeCode with Van Jones and Prince. Despite all of the bias that was in the world around me, and despite the bias that was in my own head, which is very real, and there’s been some great studies around how women in particular is who they’ve studied, but I would apply this to men, too, from the interviews I’ve done. When they’ve taken time out of the workplace to be caregivers, to raise newborns or even elder care, that they have a significantly diminished sense of confidence, and that that is reflected in the way they’re perceived in the workplace.
So, I went back to work thinking that possibly I had lost some of my edge, and I found that in fact, I was actually much more potent after having spent that time alone. So, I did 237 interviews with high performing working moms and dads, and then I looked into research from a bunch of other disciplines, particularly neuroscience, which I have a tiny bit of a background in, and I discovered after coding the interviews and looking into this research that parenthood, when supported, and that’s critical, if a parent has enough support, that they’re likely to unlock these five critical capacities, which are emotional intelligence, courage, efficiency and productivity, enhanced purpose, and the ability to collaborate. And all of those skills are critical for success in the modern workplace.
You know, when I went onto interview the woman who became my first cofounder, she was the original VP of HR at Twitter, had started a whole bunch of programs for parents there, and I told her, “Look, this is what I’ve discovered in my interviews and in coding them with the data scientist and looking into the neuroscience.” And she dropped her fork on the plate and said, “Oh my God, we spend more money than I care to admit training our leaders to develop those skills, and you’re telling me parenthood, possibly more than anything else unlocks them?” And I said, “Yes.”
But for the most part, people didn’t care about parents in the workplace until COVID hit from our experience. So, I started this community of founders, The Fam Tech Founders, who are building products and services to meaningfully resource and value families and caregivers. And that has now put me in the position with my business, TendLab, where not only are we working inside companies to optimize the workplace, which fortunately employers now realize they must do, but now we’re working to build the movement to change the game for working parents.
Lozada: Why do you think, Amy, that nobody really cared to know this and to value parents until COVID hit? What was the tipping point? What made things change?
Henderson: I think to be honest, it’s still unclear about whether this is actually gonna change things moving forward. And yes, COVID has exacerbated the challenges, but they’ve been there for a very long time. One of the things that this moment in time has given us an opportunity to do is to look at something that has been hidden. We have not acknowledged the impact of caregiving on individuals in the workplace. We have not been tracking it. Joseph Fuller did some great research and found that 52% of employers don’t even know if their employees have caregiving responsibilities, and of those who do track, only a small fraction of them think it has any impact on workplace performance.
But if you ask employees, 80% of them who have caregiving responsibilities say that those caregiving responsibilities negatively impact their ability to perform at work. So, we’re not tracking it, we’re not looking at it, this is all pre-COVID, by the way, and if we don’t look at it, then we can’t solve for it.
Lozada: And from what you’re saying of what you discovered, there’s a great cause and effect thing here where the skills that you learn as a parent, because let’s be honest, traditionally we’ve always seen in terms of workforces, parents are seen as if they are now more of a liability. And what you’re saying from the research that you’ve found is no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. These people are gonna be able to have all these great skills that actually are things you want in your company and gonna be a benefit in your company, but the crux is they have to be well supported.
Henderson: 100%. 100%. And one important point that I just want to make based on what you shared is that Michelle Budig at the University of Michigan has done some really great research into what she calls the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus, which is that when women have children, that their economic power in their careers diminishes in terms of the way they’re perceived in the workplace. And that men, on the other hand, are likely to be perceived as more stable, and more committed, and therefore they’re likely to receive an uptick in their careers. But what we found and what other research has shown is that that’s only true if a man doesn’t appear to have caregiving responsibilities, and that if they appear to have caregiving responsibilities, and if they meaningfully show up for that child, if they take parental leave to stay home with their newborn, if they work reduced hours to show up for any regular caregiving, that they’re also likely to face a stigma and a bias.
So, when you ask about what it is that we can do to meaningfully support parents in this country, we need to have federal leadership. We need support at the state level. And so, it’s time for us as a nation to have paid family leave for everyone. It’s time for us to build a meaningful childcare infrastructure, which we do not have in this country. Prior to COVID, over 50% of parents lived in childcare deserts, where there was no high quality, affordable childcare. Now, over 50% of the childcare system has been demolished. We must build a care infrastructure in this nation.
When it comes to individual employers, a couple of the critical things that need to happen are one, we need to model from the top. Leadership on down needs to visibly show up as caretakers for their children, for their elders, for their loved ones. They need to prioritize it and they need to be very vocal about it within their companies and to all of their other stakeholders, including their investors and board members. That needs to happen. And then the other thing that needs to happen is that employers need to start giving equivalent benefits regardless of the wage level of the employee.
So, people on the front line need to get the same benefits that corporate headquarters workers receive. They need to get the same access to paid family leave, the same childcare and elder care subsidies. It cannot be a two-tiered system. That just does not work.
Lozada: You just mentioned with the motherhood penalty and the parenting bonus that it’s an expected suffering, and that by doing it, you’re not gonna be valued. You’re gonna be undervalued. And I hate, particularly to that, back to the societal point, is when dads are seen as, “I’ll take the kids today,” or, “Can you please take…” The dad’s not the babysitter. And dads who do participate in the caretaking and show up do feel offended by that, because it’s like, “Hey, I’m here wiping this kid’s butt and waking up at night just as much, right?” We need more of that, but why do we need more of that, Amy? Why do we need dads also to participate in the caregiving and all the caregivers be valued?
Henderson: Yes. Thank you for that really important question. One of the researchers that I cite the most in my book, and who’s also been really influential in my own understanding, is Dr. Ruth Feldman, who’s a neuroscientist that teaches at the Yale School of Medicine, and her research and her review of other literature in the space led her to believe that the greatest potential for plasticity is in the year surrounding birth of one’s child. And that that’s true for moms and engaged parents of all genders if they show up for the job, regardless of whether or not it’s actually their birth child.
And so, during this window of extreme neurological plasticity, or at least the potential for it, what happens really matters. And what we know is that parents who show up for that experience in a very meaningful way, who surrender to it as you said, because it does feel like a surrender. You have to sacrifice so much of yourself, and your identity, and who you thought you were, and what you believe to be true about the world around you. I know for me it wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized that I am not independent of the people around me. As much as I might like to think I am, I am not. I am a product of my environment. I was and I always will be. And that I cannot do this on my own. I cannot raise a child on my own. Even if I’m not working outside the home, I need support for my mental well being and for my identity.
So, your question was specifically around why it matters to engage and support caregivers. What I would say is that during this window of extreme neuroplasticity, if we don’t support parents, what we know is likely to happen is that it’s gonna set them on a long-term negative trajectory in their development. Physically, emotionally, and in terms of their career. That if we don’t resource that window, it has a long-term negative impact, and that long-term negative impact is not just on them, but it’s on our infrastructure as a nation. What it means in terms of long-term health impacts, their ability to contribute in a meaningful way to the workplace, their ability to not need social services to support them in their long-term negative mental and physical challenges that they face, right? Like in order for folks to continue to be productive, engaged, healthy members of society, we need to support this year and beyond. So, that’s the one thing.
And then the other thing I would say is that when we don’t acknowledge this drastic transformation that occurs, we’re missing out on this incredible opportunity to transform and evolve. And we don’t know that what is happening to us has the potential for significant positive long-term impact. I like to think of it this way. We know that under pressure, a diamond cracks along the fault lines, and it’s not the diamond’s fault that it’s under the pressure, but when it cracks, and this is how I think of us as individuals and us as a society, when we crack, the opportunity and the gift is to look at where we were weak and in need of tending. Where are we falling apart? Where do we need to give ourselves a deeper level of care, a deeper level of compassion? Where do we need to resource ourselves so that we can grow and evolve through whatever is being shown to us during this extreme stress?
And I think that is true not just for us as individuals, but as a society. Right now, what we’re seeing is that under pressure, we are cracking. As a nation, we are falling apart. We are losing… Up to three million women have been forced out of the workplace because we don’t have the system, we don’t have the infrastructure to support them. We need to acknowledge that and address it. Just because we see it, it’s not enough. We need to take steps necessary to fix it.
Lozada: Absolutely. So, what I learned reading your book was that one of the most valuable skills that people can have in a company is to be able to work collaboratively. And in order to work collaboratively, you need to bring people together. They need to feel safe. So, they need to be able to share their feelings. They need to be able to be vulnerable. And they need to be able to think, “I can say anything and I’m not gonna be shot down for that.” And that is a skill that innately becoming a parent and giving birth teaches you if you are well supported.
Henderson: The birthing process, which is a space in which you have been working, and meaningfully resourcing, and showing up for other women, is the perfect metaphor for all of the work that I’m now doing. The birth process is messy. It is not linear. It is not time bound. It has its own process, and you can’t control it. You can set the conditions for it to occur, and you can support it, but you just gotta let it run its course, right? And it is something that is at odds with how I was raised in my middle-class white family to be, because we are taught that you set your goal, and you go after it, and you achieve it, and anything that gets in your way, you push out of the way, and you just move towards the goal. And when you give birth, you can’t push towards your goal. You just have to surrender to the experience.
What giving birth taught me is that there’s another way to be in the world that isn’t about forcing things based on my own agenda but is about surrendering to a bigger agenda. One that includes me but is much bigger than me. And one of the things I love was discovering how these two scientists at UCLA who were women in the ‘90s were like, “Hey, you know that study about the way humans respond to stress? It was done without any women as subjects.” And so, they redid the study looking at how women respond to stress, and they found that women oftentimes respond to stress in a very different way, that women under stress are more likely to respond by tending to those around them and befriending those around them.
Which is so different than fight, flight, or freeze. And they think this is because for most of humanity, women have either been pregnant, breastfeeding, or otherwise tending to small ones. And if they fought, or they fled, or they froze, they wouldn’t be able to care for those around them. So, they had to come together and be a resilient, engaged, collaborative, unified force against whatever external threat was working against them for their well-being. And I think about for this time in history, that what we know is that we are in a period of unprecedented change. COVID-19 is just one example of many threats and stressors that are coming, that are here, that are gonna continue to be here, and if we’re gonna make it through this gauntlet of time, we have got to learn to work together for the common good.
And I think parenthood, more than anything else, primes us to show up for that.
Lozada: And going back to what we value, we need a paradigm shift of what we value, because you and I know pre-giving birth, in terms of society, we value the being strong, and being-
Lozada: And also, like taking up space, and we see these tend and befriend as “weak” skills. And then, so what does it do to ourselves, thinking, “Oh, now I’m all tending and befriending. Now I’m weak.” We need to flip that on its head and understand that the ability to collaborate instead of antagonize is an-
Henderson: Or compete.
Lozada: Or compete, is an immense skill that we need at all levels of our life. Like we need to shift those values and really lean into what we learn when we become parents. And I’m so excited that you are seeing this and connecting it to how we can help each other at bigger levels, at the federal level, of supporting… You’re like doulaing us at a different level, Amy, basically.
Henderson: That’s the goal. That’s the goal.
Lozada: Amy, thank you so much for being here on the show today and for all the work you do.
Henderson: Adriana, thank you for the incredible work you do.
Lozada: That was Amy Henderson, who is a leading voice advocating for the power of parenthood at work. She’s cofounder and CEO of TendLab, where she mobilizes organizations and institutions to optimize the workplace for parents, and Amy also started and co-leads The Fam Tech Founders Collaborative and is the author of Tending: Parenthood and the Future of Work. You can find Amy Henderson on Instagram @AmyTendLab or connect with her at amyhenderson.org.
I hope your main takeaway from our conversation is how incredibly more amazing you become by being a caregiver and that you require proper support. So, one thing you can do for you is to get serious about setting up your infrastructure of postpartum support. Make sure you and your partner, if you have one, take as much family leave as you can. Make sure your partner and other family members are actively involved in the caretaking of the baby or in taking care of you as you take care of your baby. Maybe get a postpartum doula. And if the company you work for says they want to improve things for their employees that have caretaking responsibilities, that would be you, then connect them with TendLab at TendLab.com.
The one thing you can do for the rest of us is learn about and support the efforts of PLUS, which is the Paid Leave for the United States national campaign to win high quality paid family and medical leave for everyone by 2022. They have already won paid family leave for nearly 8 million people. Learn more at paidleave.us.
Lozada: Birthful was created by me, Adriana Lozada, and is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. The show’s senior producer is Paulina Velasco. Jen Chien is our executive editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer and Kojin Tashiro mixed this episode. Thank you for listening to and sharing Birthful. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, and everywhere you listen, and come back next week for more ways to inform your intuition.
Lozada, Adriana, host. “Why Employers Need to Value Your Parenting Skills.” Birthful, Lantigua Williams & Co., April 28, 2021. Birthful.com.
About Amy Henderson
Amy Henderson is one of our nation’s leading voices on the critical role of parenting and caregiving in developing the future of work. Amy has three kids and is the founding CEO of TendLab, where she has been working with companies and their parents’ groups at places like Salesforce, Accenture, Cloudflare, Airbnb, Lululemon, and many others to optimize the workplace for parents. As cited in Forbes for her “truly collaborative nature,” Amy also started and co-leads the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative, a network of over 130 founders who are solving for the needs of caregivers. Amy is now working with her team at TendLab to catalyze a movement to change the game for working parents.
A regular speaker and author advocating on behalf of the power of parenthood at work, Amy has been featured in and written for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, Slate, InStyle, and more. Her book, ‘Tending: Parenthood and the Future of Work,” will be published by Nationbuilder Books in May 2021.
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