I was never able to take more than four weeks off work after the births of my children. My husband filed for divorce a week after the birth of our third daughter. Two weeks later, I moved on my own with our children from Utah to Massachusetts, where my soon-to-be-ex-husband was living for work. In order to support my family, I had no alternative but to start full-time temp work a week after the move. With the 1.5-hour commute into Boston, I was away from my children for 13 hours a day, five days a week, for the next two months. Trying to successfully breastfeed meant pumping in bathrooms. I vividly remember standing next to a sink in a tiny bathroom trying to balance the pump gear (even the stall was too far away from the electrical outlet) and desperately willing my body to relax so that the pump could do its job. Most days I couldn’t stop the tears as I stared at the bottle with less than an ounce of milk in it each time I pumped, feeling like a complete failure for being away from my baby so much and not even being able to make enough milk for her.
The only reason I maintained any semblance of sanity during that time was the support of my baby’s child care provider, Debbie. Within only a few weeks, it became obvious that Debbie had grown to adore my baby daughter, Echo. Debbie was understanding when my commute made me late for pickup, even when it became clear that it was going to be a regular occurrence. She started asking questions about our situation and became a trusted confidant about the stresses we were experiencing. She even kept my daughters overnight several times when I had to fly to California for a family situation. Debbie’s love for Echo resulted in her going out of her way to help our struggling family, which made all the difference for me and my girls.
A few months after our move, I happened to read an article about a credit union in California that allowed its employees to bring their babies to work every day and care for them while doing their jobs until the babies were six months old. Captivated by the idea of not having to separate from a baby who was only weeks old, I called the company. To my amazement, I was told that even though there had been a lot of skepticism when the program was first proposed, the credit union’s staff—from management to tellers—now loved having babies around. Participating parents were still able to get their work done, and the program increased company morale, retention, teamwork, and recruitment. It even attracted new customers and made them more loyal; a branch manager described watching credit union members intentionally choosing longer lines so that they could interact with a teller’s baby when they got to the front.
Once I started looking, I found six other companies with baby programs, and they all said the same things about the benefits the programs created. For some reason, once the first baby started coming to work within a structured program, everything changed. Coworkers—even those who weren’t parents themselves and didn’t particularly like kids in general—loved playing with the babies and would often seek them out for cuddles if they were having a stressful day. They would volunteer to care for the babies if the parents were overwhelmed with an intense project or needed to go to a meeting.
The babies who came to work rarely cried for more than a few seconds, and they thrived in the supportive communities that these workplaces provided. Quite a few of these baby-inclusive organizations ended up implementing other family-friendly policies—such as telecommuting, work shares, and even building on-site child care facilities in some cases. The baby program enabled management to see firsthand that both mothers and fathers could be both dedicated employees and dedicated parents at the same time.
After the difficulties I had experienced with my own babies, I became consumed with understanding why these babies-at-work programs worked so well. I spent every free moment over the following eight years searching for more companies and talking to as many people as I could who had experience with or could give me insight into these programs. Six companies became thirty, then seventy, and we’re now up to more than 180 confirmed baby-inclusive organizations. They range from law firms to consulting firms to credit unions to schools to government agencies—in dozens of industries, dozens of states, private sector and public, in organizations ranging from 3 to 3,000 employees. More than 2,100 babies have successfully come to work in these companies.
Parents who were able to bring their babies to work were very responsive to their children’s needs and made sure to do their work efficiently to ensure that they would be able to continue participating in the program. This certainly played a large part in how happy these babies tended to be compared to what people typically expected before a program was implemented. But there was something else going on. In our culture with restaurants that ban kids, hostility toward parents whose toddlers melt down in the grocery store, and harsh judgment of mothers who nurse in public, why were the people in all of these very different companies almost uniformly welcoming of other people’s children? The effect wasn’t even limited to babies. In the several companies I was able to find that allowed children of all ages to come to work with their parents, coworkers would play with the toddlers and come up with little projects—like handing out the mail—to enable older children to feel useful and valued within the workplace community.
The answer ties in to why Debbie did so much to help my own family. She had developed a bond with Echo, and from that point forward, Echo’s—and by extension the rest of our family’s—happiness and well-being mattered to her personally. For non-parents whose past experience with babies might have been limited to fervently wishing, “Please make that baby on my flight stop screaming,” a baby program gives them the opportunity to get to know these children as individuals and they develop deep attachments to them. Once that happens, judgment and resentment disappears over things like parents taking a day off when their child is sick. It’s no longer, “Why does she get all this time off just because she has a kid?” Instead, it becomes, “Oh, Katie is sick? Of course you should stay home and take care of her!”
In baby-inclusive companies, child-friendly and flexible work policies start to matter to everyone, because they impact a child that the workplace community has grown to love. Negative stereotypes about children or parents fade away in the light of these personal connections, and a community of mutual support and understanding develops. These businesses become a microcosm of what advocates for work and family balance have worked so hard to achieve in our society.
Because mothers who bring their babies to work with them for six or eight months can more easily remain present in the workplace after having a child, respect for their skills and abilities increases and it is easier for them to achieve their professional goals. Mothers who wish to breastfeed find it far easier to do so successfully if they can keep their baby with them all day. Fathers who bring their babies to work often initially notice stereotypes about men not being as capable caregivers as women. Several fathers I spoke with described women in their workplaces actually taking over care of the baby in the first few weeks, while making unspoken or sometimes explicit assumptions about the fathers not doing things “correctly.” Over time, though, this would shift to acknowledgment of the father’s competence and their importance in their children’s lives. Bringing their babies to work also gave fathers the opportunity to develop a closer bond with their babies and more confidence in their own parenting skills, potentially making these dads more likely to be equal parenting partners as their children grew older.
Babies-at-work programs create an environment of support for families, equality for men and women, and greater understanding between parents and non-parents. They have the potential to break down the artificial walls we have created between career and family. They may even increase overall empathy and kindness in our society. A Canadian organization called Roots of Empathy has documented significant decreases in aggressive behavior and increases in pro-social behavior from their program in which they bring infants and their parents into school classrooms so that students can interact with the babies in a structured setting.
Oxytocin, dubbed the “love hormone,” is released when we have positive physical contact with other people, and research shows that it can make people more likely to trust others and engage in helpful behaviors. Coworkers and managers in baby-inclusive companies routinely hold and snuggle with babies, so it’s no surprise that these companies report increased levels of teamwork and camaraderie after a baby program is implemented. We may be able to create a more supportive society with a simple prescription: “Add babies.”