I’ve always maintained that children are a choice. A choice that changes all aspects for your life, personally and professionally. A choice that many think leads to life fulfillment that you can’t find elsewhere. A choice that, according to U.S. census data, fewer women are making. A choice that (full disclosure) I only recently started thinking I will make someday.
It’s also a choice that employers support—some in much more generous ways than others—through parental-leave benefits.
As companies like Facebook, Netflix and Google announce generous expansions to their parental leave policies and countless articles are written advocating for the implementation of mandatory paid leave in the Unites States, I’m encouraged that this could lead to real, positive change. But I’m also unable to escape the thought: What about the rest of us?
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Before you start losing it in the comments section or angrily post this to Facebook along with a rant about how childless people don’t understand how hard parenthood is, let me be clear: I get it. I understand that becoming a parent is so much work that I actually can’t even understand it.
What I don’t understand, however, is why people who are single and childless, married and childless or any other variation of non-parent workers are often ignored in the discussions on fixing parental leave and creating flexible-work policies benefitting parents.
After all, successfully implementing more generous parental-leave policies will require the buy-in of not just parents and the employers cutting their checks. A company’s entire workforce needs to be on-board to support the policy and to make up for the transitional costs and lost productivity when an employee goes out on leave. It’s the other employees who come together as a team to make a flexible schedule possible for a parent throughout a child’s early years.
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If an employer’s policies are keeping parents from their children, workers will likely be unhappy, unproductive and unmotivated, and retention at the company will be an issue. But childless workers can also feel as though they’re constantly picking up the slack of workers who have children—or as though their personal lives are not treated with the same level of importance as those of parents.
Although I’ve gushed over colleagues’ baby photos and gladly volunteered to lend a hand when a coworker is on pick-up duty or needs to stay home with a sick kid, there are times when I’ve felt the pinch of that additional workload.
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A voice in my head will say, “That will be you someday.” That same voice follows with, “But what if it never is? What if that isn’t the path you take?”
Assuming that paid parental-leave benefits are part of a company’s overall strategy to retain talent and create a happy, productive workforce, then perhaps flexible time or paid leave should be extended to all employees. At the very least, they should be part of the conversation.
An application-based leave program could allow workers the opportunity to take a month to travel, to care for a friend or family member in need, to learn a new skill, to get married, to adopt a pet or to otherwise appreciate their lives outside of work. (My company, in fact, offers a sabbatical program awarded for years of service.) A no-questions-asked policy of monthly flex hours could let childless workers nurture personal relationships or do something important to them—whatever that may be.
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Of course, likening these situations to the birth of a child is an imperfect comparison. I don’t pretend to have a bulletproof answer, nor would I arrogantly endeavor to suggest that a single solution could even come close to being applicable and realistic for all businesses and industries.
What I’m asking, however, is that we start talking about parental leave as an issue we can solve together in a way that involves celebrating other employees’ life choices as part of the solution.
Let’s make those who don’t want children, have already had children or may not have children for many years feel like their lives outside the office matter, too.
Lara Levin is a public relations professional living, working, eating, thriving and Dogspotting in San Francisco.