Moms of Highly Gifted Face Steep Work Off-Ramp

The CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, just abolished Yahoo’s work-at-home policy. This bold move to kill workplace flexibly will disproportionately affect employees who have primary caretaker responsibilities for aging parents and/or young children. Employees were ordered to start working in the office in an attempt to save Yahoo through better collaboration and increased innovation. While employees can be very productive working at home, they need face-to-face interactions and chance meetings at the workplace in order to find synergies and maximize creativity.

Ms. Mayer is taking heat for her decision because it was assumed that as a young working mother she would make the workplace, if anything, more friendly to the needs of working parents, not less. Instead, she is putting the needs, as she perceives them, of Yahoo, ahead of the needs of employees that, due to family obligations, require flexibility in their work life. Since the job of both raising children and taking care of aging parents falls disproportionately to women, this decision will have the greatest effect on Yahoo’s female workers. While it may well be the correct decision for Yahoo’s bottom line, it is further evidence that is very difficult for women to have it all.  As convincingly analyzed last July by Anne-Marie Slaughter of The Atlantic Monthly, women who manage to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. Given that Ms. Mayer became CEO of Yahoo at age 37 when pregnant with her first child, it is a good bet she is the first two.

So what does this all have to do with gifted kids?

The parents, especially the mothers of gifted children, especially highly and profoundly gifted children take an especially hard hit in the work-life balancing act. More often than not, they are the primary caregivers and it falls to them to figure it out when normal environments don’t work for their high-energy, asynchronous, and possibly perfectionistic, highly volatile child. This inability for highly and profoundly gifted kids to thrive or even fit, in regular childhood environments can start in daycare, long before official schooling. The rhythm of daycare with carefully scheduled, age-appropriate, group activities and rules can be exactly the opposite of what an insatiable learner needs. When the child’s needs aren’t being met, behavior problems frequently occur. The primary parent starts getting comments at pickup times, notes home, and calls about her child’s misconduct. These can continue into elementary school. When the environment isn’t right for a significantly gifted child, both that child and the primary care giver suffer. The dread of the next phone call or note home, along with the knowledge that your curious, creative, learner is becoming disengaged and miserable, frequently sparks a search for a more appropriate childcare and/or schooling environment.

When regular daycare and school doesn’t work for significantly gifted children, there are three standard solutions — working with the school to increase engagement and opportunities for your child, putting your child in a school for gifted children, and homeschooling. Oftentimes parents do all three of these, sometimes at the same time. One truism when raising significantly gifted children is that school environments and challenges must be evaluated on an almost yearly basis. Again, all of this takes research, work, and time. Lots of time. Time to find the right programs, each year. Time to get your child enrolled (which may also include convincing the administration that your young child is actually capable of doing the work), time to drive your child to specialized programs which are rarely in the local school district. This time burden increases when we add in the high-strung, perfectionism in many gifted kids that causes meltdowns, even for seemingly simple tasks.

All of this makes it very difficult for parents of significantly gifted kids, even in two parent households, to both work demanding, professional jobs. If one parent holds a job in a non-flexible work environment, such as the new Yahoo, the other parent is the full-time driver, teacher/teacher liaison, and emotional coach for the gifted child. More often than not, this job falls to the mother who then puts her career desires aside. In the world of giftedness, from meeting of gifted homeschoolers to SENG conferences, the rooms are filled with mothers, not fathers. Mothers sacrificing their careers, financial autonomy, and perhaps, their personal aspirations to instead focus on their children’s needs. The mothers of significantly gifted kids are usually highly gifted, innovative thinkers themselves. Our nation misses out when they are unable to fully participate in business, industry, and government.

While CEOs such as Ms. Mayer may be correct that businesses benefit when workers can talk, face-to-face, that does not mean that flexibility needs to be completely eliminated. We as a society can get more creative. Some companies have experimented with core hours — 4 to 5 specific hours in the day when all workers must be in the office. Others are recognizing that part-time positions can include meaningful, decision making, and advisory roles. Some schools  are working to match school days with work hours to eliminate the last 2 hours of the day childcare burden.

Creatively balancing workplace flexibility with face time is a good start, yet the biggest change we can make is in our attitudes. We need to stop viewing workers who have the primary responsibility for raising gifted kids as workers who are “taking a break” or “taking time out” from the regular work world. Raising a gifted child requires patience, research skills, negotiation savvy (both with your child and school officials), juggling priorities, trouble-shooting, and a host of other skills that companies desire. Parents who take a chunk of time away from paid employment should be welcomed back into the workplace as highly trained, effective workers who are switching industries. Taking time to raise gifted kids is not the same as taking a multi-year vacation and business needs to stop viewing it as such.


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