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Why We Need to Talk About Parenting in Philanthropy

Monday, September 26, 2016

By Maya Trabin

I had coffee recently with a friend and we got to talking about her early days of parenting. When her son, now ten, was born, she was a director at a large social justice organization, running campaigns to protect rights and support greater equality for families and individuals. After a complicated birth and three months of unpaid leave, she returned to work.

Her first day back fell on the same day as the monthly all-staff meeting, which she welcomed as a chance to see everyone again. As people went around the room to share updates and progress reports, not a single person commented on her absence or mentioned her becoming a parent. In an organization that was founded on the basis of our shared humanity, they failed to recognize this life-changing experience. “It was like I had just been to another universe for the past three months, and no one acknowledged it,” she recalled. While people did congratulate her later in personal conversations, the most formal space in the organization, the staff meeting, was not deemed appropriate.

You could analyze the situation in a lot of ways, depending on how you see the invisible lines we draw around what’s “personal” and where those things belong in a professional setting. You could see this as simply an HR blunder, or maybe as not a problem at all. As for me, hearing about her experience made me want to cry. It brought back the isolation I felt after going back to work and trying to reconcile these now two and distinct full-time jobs (parenting being the second). Moving forward, I saw several less than ideal options: pretend I was ok, find a way to split myself in two, or leave the personal at home. 

In the years since becoming a mom, I’ve spoken with many others parents doing social change work, and they have echoed a similar dilemma. We’re drawn to this work because we want to contribute to real change, but, whether through workplace culture or policies, our sector does not always reflect the same values internally when it comes to caretaking as it does through its work. 

First and foremost, we have a long way to go in supporting working families, and that must remain a priority. But as we tackle this challenge, let’s not forget about the work we have to do in our own sector. Is there a way for philanthropy to more fully embrace and support those who are working to make change while raising the next generation of changemakers? How can our sector make room for people’s full lives, including their roles as caretakers, of children, parents, or others in their biological and chosen families?

I hope you’ll join us on October 5th to begin (or continue) this conversation.