Advice for Working Parents: 'Don't forget to Take Care of Yourself'

Sponsored by Cummins

Photo courtesy of Cummins.

Photo courtesy of Cummins.

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July 13, 2024 at 3:0AM UTC

When Karlene Kurtz was 46, she was surprised to discover that she was pregnant with her second child. At the time, “I thought about my son’s upcoming transition from daycare to kindergarten and from being an only child to a big brother, business travel picking back up (for both my husband and me), and the sleepless nights with an infant,” reflects Kurtz. “I struggled to see how I’d manage the ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘me,’ and work.”

So, Kurtz ended up asking for her ‘dream scenario,’ which would enable her to be the mom she wanted to be while continuing her work at Cummins Inc, a company she has been at for 20 years. Thanks to being an advocate for herself and the culture of caring at Cummins, Kurtz’s request was granted — she took maternity leave before returning to work in a new part-time role as a HR Leader for Strategy and Transformation. Here, Kurtz says she works “to redefine and implement our operating model to deliver HR services more effectively and efficiently to our workforce as the needs of our employees, leaders, and business evolve.”

This was all possible thanks to the leaders at Cummins “who have always cared about me as a whole person – not just as an employee with deliverables to achieve, but also as a partner, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend,” Kurtz tells us. “Leaders at Cummins are supportive of our unique, individual needs, and we have guidelines and policies to help.” This supportive and flexible culture continues to make the impossible possible for parents like Kurtz! 

Here, Kurtz discusses her maternity leave, advice for parents, thoughts on balance, and more!

Let’s start by discussing your maternity leave. How did you prepare for maternity leave, and what advice can you offer to other moms who are expecting their first child?

I’ve been on maternity leave twice and while they were different experiences, I managed them pretty similarly. With my son, I was going to be returning to the same job post maternity leave as I had prior; however, with my daughter, I’d be returning in an entirely different capacity. I’m quite organized and kept a detailed list of work activities that I was responsible for over a couple of months and made a list of who was on point for what — leveraging a pretty broad network to not overburden a single person. I reviewed this transition plan with key stakeholders to ensure that everyone was comfortable with it. I also took an expectant parenting class at the hospital, where I received some good advice about not filling leave with house projects — focus on bonding with your baby, that’s the most important thing you can do. As someone who is a bit of a productivity nerd, that was hard to imagine but useful input!  

Karlene Kurtz. Photo courtesy of Cummins.

How long were you on maternity leave and what was it like to return to work?  

For my first maternity leave, I was out of work 100% for 12 weeks, then I returned at 50% for three months, before coming back to work 100%. For my second maternity leave, I was out of work 100% for 16 weeks, and then returned to a part-time role for an indefinite period. With my first baby, dropping him off at daycare was heartbreaking. I cried every day for several weeks; however, I enjoyed reconnecting with colleagues and had a whole new appreciation for working parents, especially nursing mothers, who found a way to pump multiple times throughout the day! 

Moving on, what does “balance” mean to you, and in what ways do you feel like you’ve achieved it?  

To me, balance means living in a way that is consistent with my values and priorities. I’ve always said “family is the most important thing,” but I’ve found myself, at points in my life, making choices that were inconsistent with that and spending too much time on my computer, or being mentally distracted by work when engaging with my family. 

I made a choice to work reduced hours, impacting my income and changing my role, but significantly improving my ability to live in a way that is consistent with what’s most important to me right now. I get to pick my son up every day, volunteer at his school, and be the first person my daughter sees in the morning and the last person she sees before she goes to bed. I am fully present when I ask my son about his day, and when my husband talks to me about his. I often get eight hours of sleep at night, run three to four times a week, and aim to get laundry and grocery shopping done during the week, freeing up the weekends for family time.

While there are some days that are more challenging than others, most days I feel like I’m achieving my goal of making sure my family knows that they are the most important thing in my life.  

What’s one misconception you think exists around work-life balance today?

That you have it or you don’t. Some days, I have it dialed in, and others I don’t. Balance is fluid and requires constant attention.

A former boss of mine said he does mental check-ins asking:

  • “Do I feel good about ‘we’?” (Meaning he and his wife. Are they connected, getting enough quality time together, etc.?)

  • “Do I feel good about ‘us’?” (Meaning his whole family. Has he connected with his daughters recently, and does he know what’s going on in their lives?) 

  • “Do I feel good about ‘me’?” (Meaning self care. Has he done things that bring him joy, etc.?)  

It’s a triangle that he’s always balancing. Sometimes, moms leave out the ‘me’ part of the equation and neglect the self care part when thinking about their contributions at work and at home. But they should ask themselves: what brings them joy and what refreshes them?

What kinds of boundaries have you established to separate work and family time? 

I am quite disciplined about establishing the core hours where I devote my attention to work (they are included in my email signature), and while I make the rare exception, I’m pretty good about managing them. My colleagues are extremely helpful in doing the same. We don’t have cell phones at the dinner table, and when I’m on vacation with my family, I am 100% on vacation. 

Karlene Kurtz. Photo courtesy of Cummins.

What are you especially good at as a mom? What about at work?  

My son and I have made some pretty impressive robots out of tissue boxes, egg cartons, and aluminum foil. (We think they are ‘good,’ but it’s doubtful others would. ?)  Truthfully, what I hope I’m good at is prioritizing my kids and my partner and ensuring they all know that I love them unconditionally.

At work, I’m good at bringing people and their points of view together to solve problems, aligning systems to achieve a desired goal, and bringing my sense of humor to work.  I genuinely have fun working.  

Why do you think Cummins is a particularly great place to be a working mom?

Our values and leadership behaviors underscore our commitment to caring. We have a culture that encourages authenticity and transparency, and I’ve always felt safe asking for the support I’ve needed.

Policies and programs don’t mean a lot unless you have a culture that appreciates employees as ‘whole people’ and creates an environment where it’s okay to bring up concerns and needs.  We have a generous parental leave policy, nursing mother’s rooms in our facilities, supportive flexible working guidelines, and a number of employee resource groups. We also have programs in select disciplines that have helped women transition back into work after taking some time off.

Finally, what’s your top tips for new moms who are navigating the delicate balance of working and mothering? 

I have three things: 

  1. Ask for the help you need.

  2. Never underestimate the power of sleep and the possibilities of a brand new day.

  3. Don’t forget about taking care of yourself — you’ll be a better mom and a better employee if you take care of yourself, not just everyone else.

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