My early days as a working parent were more complicated than I ever expected. I would attend a “new mommy group” made of highly degreed and accomplished women, but none of us had a clue as to how to successfully return to work – or even whether all of us would.
When I met clothing designer Amy Coe, she was just a few years ahead of me in raising her daughter, but her confidence and success were light years ahead of mine. She took me under her wing and helped me navigate the trickiest job I would ever have: working parent.
She was an excellent mentor on all levels, and I truly cannot imagine how my career would’ve gone without her.
Being a working parent is not something you ease into, nor is it something that gets simpler with time. From managing childcare for the first time to figuring out how to pump at work or manage office politics when your kid is constantly sick, the list of new demands is endless and relentless. It’s important to glean tips from people who’ve done it before.
But my own experience reminds me of the importance of one particular resource that many successful people don’t discuss often enough: a working parent mentor.
Typically, a professional mentor would help you with career guidance, networking, resume advice, whatever. A working parent mentor follows the same basic idea, but is more specialized. This person is your go-to with insights to help you navigate your way through the minefields you didn’t even know existed.
What’s the best way to manage your parental leave, or your sometimes-difficult return to work? What are some tips for getting out of the house in the morning now that you have a baby to wrangle? Are there support groups or specific benefits at your company to help working parents?
Enter the mentor.
Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, underscores the power of parental mentoring. “One powerful way we can help new working moms (editor’s note: and working dads) is by recognizing the tremendous development and growth that goes on during the Fifth Trimester,” or the period right after the newborn haze, when many parents return to work.
Working dads often need mentors, too.
All too frequently, engaged dads are penalized at work – ften for simply taking paternity leave at all. Finding other working dads is essential on a personal level, and maybe even a societal level. After all, the more men encourage each other to actually take the parental leave they’re entitled to, the less stigmatized it’ll become.
Where to find a working parent mentor
Depending on the size and diversity of the company where you work, the perfect would-be mentor may sit just a few desks over. That coworker who runs out in the middle of the day when daycare calls to say her toddler has a fever? The one with macaroni art adorning his desk? They’re the ones.
“I mentor because it was not always easy for me and I’ve got plenty of great information to share, information I wish someone would have given me,” says Megan Darmody, Director of Press, Events and Partnerships at UrbanStems.
Some things you might look for in an ideal working-parent mentor:
Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to work at your current company. You might know someone from a past job, or even from around town (meet at the gym, mentor for life?). The point is simply to find someone with valuable insights to share.
Cheryl Patran, CEO of the Pump Station and Nurtury in Santa Monica, is a strong advocate of peer support. She advises, “Just pick up the phone and ask that new parent you admire or respect for her ideas and feedback–she wants to help as much as you want to be supported.”
Finding your people online
Maybe you’re the first of your friends to have a kid, or you work at a small company where there aren’t many other parents. If you don’t have any would-be mentors in mind, consider looking for one online.
Because you’ll likely get the best insights from people in your own industry, try searching for groups by profession.
How does the mentorship work?
Some mentorships are more formal than others. If you already have a rapport with this person, you might simply grab coffee and share stories about your week (or month, or however often you meet).
In other cases, especially if this is someone you’ve met through work but aren’t independently friends with, you might prefer a somewhat more formalized experience. Having an agenda can prevent those awkward, “So, what do you want to ask me?” “Umm, I don’t know. Want to just chat?” moments.
Make your own resources
Yes, you’re busy and probably don’t have time for some new effort-intensive initiative, but if you don’t have immediate access to the kind of mentorship you crave, you can pretty easily set up a Slack channel, monthly lunch date for the working parents in your network or other informal opportunities to connect.
For example, Jennifer Gilmore helped create a peer program at Campbell’s Soup. “I was fresh back from maternity leave and so I understood the struggles of a parent returning to work,” she says. These days, the group is known as the Campbell Parent ID Connection, and it has since expanded throughout the company via word of mouth.
Of course, you could always start your own group online, too.
In 2013, Louisville, Kentucky-based attorney Michelle Coughlin returned to work as a new mother. “When I looked around me and felt that I was the only mom trying to balance this legal career with parenthood, I felt like I was drowning. I started MothersEsquire because I needed to know I wasn’t alone out there.”
Her group, which started small and highly informally, has grown to be the leading voice at regional and national conferences when it comes to addressing the high attrition rate that the legal profession has come to accept as “normal for women.”
How you can pay it forward
“I have a 6-month-old,” says one mom I know, “so I’m hardly an expert, but I reached out to an expectant mom at my company to let her know that I’m available if she needs anything as she goes on maternity leave and when she returns. I could still use a mentor, myself, but even in these few months I’ve gathered a few insights I’m glad to share.”
As you connect with working parents and share your own earned expertise, don’t keep your workplace peer-mentoring under wraps. Sharing or even presenting the impact of these programs to management can help encourage buy-in, formalize the program and have an even bigger impact.
The bottom line is the bottom line: Low-cost mentoring programs are a straightforward way for employers to help limit attrition, and they can be a point of pride. Mentoring is a valuable recruitment and retention tool.
The possibilities are endless, and very necessary for working parents.
In my own life, I’ve found that these bonds forged in the early days of parenthood really last. My mentors and I have since graduated from sharing tips about feeding babies and figuring out daycare to tips on college tours and admissions!
This article first appeared on Fabric.