How Firms Can Better Support Working Parentsby
The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing disruption to people's lives around the globe, and experts are unsure when it will end. Women, especially working mothers, were particularly hard hit and are still looking for ways to balance career and motherhood. Here's how accounting firms can help.
It's every parent’s nightmare. Not the worst nightmare, of course, but still a very bad dream. On March 19, 2020, I received the message that my daughter’s school was closing due to COVID-19. Was I worried about COVID-19? Up to that point, I thought the whole thing was joke. “Coronavirus” - sounded the new term for a hangover. I saw a Facebook post with a person throwing up and an empty twelve pack of Corona next to them sometime during the prior December. I thought, “Haha, how clever.” That is, until the message from the school came.
I was shocked and intentionally started watching the news for the first time, well, ever. I then became terrified and indulged in some irrational behaviors. The news can have that effect. But under that was the nagging feeling of no school. I work. I own, run, and work full-time in my own accounting firm. How am I going to deal with no school? Are we still living in the mentality of the 50’s, where it is expected that everyone has a stay-at-home-mom living in their household? We don’t have any family in this town. How can I be expected to just babysit all day? And, of course, in our perfectionist, productivity-driven society I am also expected to take care of my dear sweet children with an unwavering, patient, loving, motherly attitude. I must coax, encourage and helicopter. But they also must learn to be tough and productive. Or, maybe, whining is encouraged these days. We go from one extreme to the next so easily. I’m not sure which one we are on today. Make sure you get this exactly right, Reanna, or our failing society will be all your fault for being such a horrible parent to our precious future generation. I must have no regard for myself. I must be selfless. "Selfless," now, that’s a dirty word.
Then I remembered I still have daycare, and I relaxed. Immediately, almost as if I had called a hailstorm down upon myself, daycare texted. I had to come pick up the kids right away, and they were closing until further notice. I felt overwhelmed. I could hear nails running down a chalkboard, or, worse, teeth scraping an unglazed ceramic pot. Oh no, now both kids will be home with me all day. How am I supposed to get anything done? How am I supposed to pay attention to them, be nice and excel in my work? Am I just going to be on vacation for an undetermined period because of a virus outbreak? Will everyone just understand that I am basically paralyzed with constant interruptions by my children? They eat so frequently; they can’t find that toy or shirt and need my help. Now they’re bored, and, somehow, that is all my responsibility. Are my kids just going to be on vacation until further notice? Don’t they need to learn and socialize? We’re already behind in education compared to so many other developed countries. Now we are going to fall further behind. No, I don’t think the whole world will stop for this.
Now, what was I doing? Oh right, I must pick up the kids. I shut my laptop and gave up for the weekend. TGIF!
When Monday came around, I was not exactly motivated to work. I had ingested enough terror from the news to lay in a coma. On the other hand, having the kids around is an opportunity. I can spend time with them, look them in the eye and listen. I realize I don’t see them much. We live together. I see them every day, but I don’t really see them. I don’t show them I value them. I keep them alive and try to do fun things on the weekend where I don’t personally have to be too involved. I like to do things that have a lot of distractions, like the zoo or theme parks. With these activities, I am not expected to converse or get drawn into a pointless argument. My work drains my energy, between the attention to detail, the blame I receive when my clients do something wrong, and the exhaustion that results from the projections of their poor relationship to money placed upon me. Sometimes, I feel more like a psychotherapist than an accountant. Yet, work gets all the energy and attention, and the rest of life just passes by.
I wonder how my employee in India is doing. Coronavirus looks worse over there. I call him. He says he is well, and, so far, their work facilities remain open. But they have to social distance and go directly to and from work without stopping. He wonders if he can work from home so as not to disrupt the schedule. I appreciate him but am wary. I find out if all the IT protection will remain if he works at home. (It does.) I wonder if he thinks I mistrust him. Do I? Is it because he’s in India? Do I think I’m superior as an American? No, of course not. I have humility. And I know him. It is just general cyber threats that I don’t trust. But I wonder if I sound like such a cold-heartless person that I cannot have our work disrupted when his country is experiencing such turmoil. I know I sound that way. I wonder what he thinks of Americans, as surely, I present our prevailing attitudes and beliefs. We have discussed his culture and their festivals, with their bright colors and reverence to their Gods. We have talked about the way people put family first and the way they value life, peace and joy over everything else. I am envious. It sounds like a reality from a different time that I once experienced. But I am just daydreaming. I am relieved he is well and remains motivated to work.
As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, I begin thinking about the way I live and work. I think about the way I treat my kids and husband. I think about the way I treat my employee. I think about the way I treat myself. I begin taking time to understand why I have this nagging misery hiding under the surface of my very picturesque life, which I work so hard to build and maintain. It checks all the boxes: marriage, kids, house, my own business. So much freedom. But why don’t I have time to do the things that I want to do? Why don’t I even know what those things might be? I begin reading and studying self-help, spirituality and meditation. I realize I treat almost everyone as a means to an end rather than a sovereign being with free will and a whole life outside my interactions with them. I even treat myself this way. I spend more time thinking about what I am doing and what people will think of it than what I am being.
I take note of the way the office in India incentivizes our employees. They have parties and contests and encourage creative expression. They have many more holidays than we have in the U.S., and they observe them all for the entire day and night or sometimes for multiple days. They don’t seem to fear judgement for being joyful and playful. They do not seem to spend energy on worrying that they won’t be seen as productive. They do not fear taking sick days. They are not shamed for taking sick days.
I think back on my exchanges with him. I cringe. While I am in video meetings with him, I am all smiles and encouragement. I hide behind email when I feel frustrated that I must point out that something isn’t done or is not done to my standards. I guess I am afraid my frustration and bitterness will come through on my face or in my voice when we are on a video call. I don’t want him to think I take it all too seriously, when in fact I do. I stress over work as though I were an emergency room doctor saving my clients’ lives. I waste energy stressing that things are not perfect, when in fact they cannot be. Perfection is subjective. In accounting there are right and wrong ways to do things that can be very black and white. Yet, I see so much variation in the way it is all done by different accountants.
In my frustration with my first employee, I decide to hire another, this time in the Philippines. In doing so, I am coached by the new talent sourcing firm on how to make the relationship work. This training is available with the firm in India, I just have not made it a priority. After going through this training and trying to get my new teammate onboarded and trained, I realize that with my teammate in India, I have failed to communicate deadlines and procedures to such an extent that it is a wonder that he has been able to get anything done at all. I flush with shame. I commit to providing my employees with better tools. I begin recording training videos using Loom. I implement a task management system, FinancialCents. I move all our communication to a central email. I send an email to clients introducing the two team members. I get panicky emails back from two clients that do not like the idea that I will not personally be handling everything for them. I invite them to find a different accountant. Paying more fees for my personal attention is not an option on the table. Transferring knowledge and support to my teammates needs to be the priority.
I begin communicating more frequently. I am an introvert, so I by no means communicate constantly. However, I change my attitude toward my team, seeing that their value lies in their being before their doing. It is easy to say an employee is incompetent. I had felt that I had given all the resources in my power but they just did not care or were not trying. Now I see that when a person has invested the time, effort and vulnerability to go through my new-hire process, they’re invested in the job, the vision and in themselves. Instead of going straight to counseling and reprimanding, I resolve to ask open-ended questions and find common ground outside the subject of the work to get to the source of the problem. There may be things going on at home, or there may just be a communication breakdown between us.
I recently read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. That sort of book was way too sappy for me to have even thought about touching in the past. But I learned not just about communicating, but about motivation. We do not all have the same primary love language. This is a relationship, and all working relationships require love and mutual respect to be successful. Rather than be resentful, I respect my employees’ holidays, family time and sick time. I wish them well and ask how I can help them. I resolve to work to get better at this as we move forward. I strive to take an interest in them personally. Honestly, their lives are much more interesting than these accounting tasks we talk about. I understand that I cannot have expectations without communicating them. I cannot expect anyone to read my mind and then be angry when they haven’t. If I find that I continue to fail them in this way, I will hire someone who can do it better than me. But I do expect to fail. I expect my team to fail. I expect we will all live through it too, and it is okay for us to not know it all. We can learn.
By learning how to take better care of myself, such as having boundaries, communicating my feelings and expectations, resting, and making time for fun and creativity, I am learning how to treat others better. I am not an expert at it. It is a lifelong learning experience. But in seeing the ways our Western culture, religions, parents, families, friends, employers and media misrepresent what is valuable in life, I can spend more energy deciding what is true for me. I realize that I have enough, I am enough, and the people I interact with are enough. Life is not about consumption and productivity. It is about enjoying the sensation of simply breathing.
In The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, he invites the reader to notice the pleasure that is felt in the body just from breathing. In practicing feeling that pleasure, I can stop for a few minutes and throw out society’s and everyone else’s expectations of me. Or maybe it is just my perception of their expectations. I can recenter myself and decide how I want to spend my time. I can throw out the unnecessary tasks. I can choose joy and peace. I can model the way I want to be treated, and I can hear the way others want to be treated. I can stop working and start living, even if the task list remains.
I was born and raised in beautiful South Lake Tahoe and I am the youngest of six siblings. I was raised in a religion that undermined women. I watched people I love suffer as a result and decided I would not allow that life for myself or my kids. I saw education as the way out.
Schools in Tahoe, “The Gem of the Sierras”, teach students to...