On August 4, 2015 the streaming video company Netflix, located in Los Gatos, CA, announced a shockingly generous new policy for its employees who become parents: unlimited fully paid leave for mothers and fathers in the first year after the child’s arrival. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this amount of time and leave is “practically unheard of”. (Lang, M.) Employees are now allowed to work as much or as little as they see fit in that first year as they adjust to bringing a new life into their family. This policy is perhaps a logical extension of Netflix’s long-standing vacation policy, which is that employees may take as much vacation as they want, without any records kept. (Lang. M.)
This move by Netflix is another action from the tech sector designed to question, if not disrupt, how our society manages conflicting priorities in our lives. Tradition suggests that American culture expects competent adults to place unquestioned prioritization on work. If you choose to have a baby, that’s on you, but don’t expect your employer to consider what’s good for the baby. You need to pull yourself and your baby up by your own bootstraps.
Change Elicits Diverse Responses
The tech world is ushering in all sorts of fresh perspectives, and how the changes are valued depends on the psychology of the perceiver. Basically Netflix is saying, “Here’s a huge acknowledgment of our trust in our smart and responsible employees, and our awareness that families are important.” However, different people will have wildly different responses to this act of generosity. How a person evaluates the policy is determined by multiple factors.
Some of the strongest influences on how we respond to change ironically are rooted in the quality of our early childhood. Neuroscientists now know that very early childhood is when lifelong neural pathways begin to be laid down in a baby’s brain, pathways that will shape all sorts of responses in life over time. (Siegel, D.) One can logically conclude that the quality of parenting in the first year of life will have a lot to do with the nature of our thinking. For example, parents who are well attuned to the needs of an infant are likely to raise a child who can be empathic of others as an adult. (Siegel, D.) Likewise, an infant who deals with emotional neglect is more likely to operate from a sense of scarcity and negativity as an adult.
Example of a Positive Response
Consider some theoretical Netflix employees to illustrate these ideas. Let’s say Diana is a software engineer for Netflix. Diana is pregnant with her first child. When she hears about the new parental leave policy, she is over the moon with gratitude and excitement. Diana has reason to believe that her employer, on whom she depends for her general welfare, is validating the importance of becoming a mother. Diana will have the flexibility she longed for: to stay at home for 6 months full time, and then gradually return to more and more of her responsibilities at Netflix.
Diana is clear about who she is and what she wants. She believes that she has a precious role to play in the first weeks and months of her baby’s life, and is fine about sacrificing her presence in the work place (and perhaps her value to Netflix) for a matter of months in order to have that irretrievable time with her baby.
Diana is likely a woman whose own parents were able to hold her needs in their minds when she was an infant. When she cried unconsolably, her parents thought first of what Diana needed, not about how disturbed they were themselves. When Diana slept in their arms, her parents gazed at her intently, wondering what was going on in her little mind. When they changed Diana’s diaper, they did it lovingly and with a running commentary to her on what they were doing for her and why. Diana could not understand their language, but incredibly important information was conveyed to her right neocortex in their tone of voice, the gentleness of their touch, the rhythmic movement of her parents’ rocking chair, and their regular habit of reading her stories. These are the parental behaviors that we now know are necessary for a child to become an adult who is capable of experiencing empathy for others. (Siegel, D.) Diana is demonstrating empathy for her unborn child in making arrangements to be emotionally available to him once he arrives.
Example of an Anxious Response
Now let’s consider another theoretical Netflix employee, Lisa. Lisa is also pregnant with her first child, but she has a very different response to the change in leave policy. Lisa finds the new policy anxiety-producing. Lisa can see that it will be her own call about when to return to work. Should she be checking emails from the hospital? Will her co-workers resent her absence when they need to cover for her? Why can’t Netflix just issue a standard number of weeks for her to be home after the baby arrives, so she doesn’t have to worry about being different from the others? What if her attending to her baby means she will be overlooked for future responsibilities? Is the generous parental leave policy a Trojan horse that will only lead to negative judgments by Netflix management, which has a reputation for firing employees who are only average contributors? (Lang. M.) What if she is unable to give her full attention to the baby, because she feels compelled to check emails from work?
Lisa is an anxious person. She may have inherited a predisposition to being anxious, or she may have developed an anxious personality because of deficits in her early childhood. Anxious parents tend to produce anxious children. Something happened in Lisa’s childhood to heighten her awareness of potential trouble, and to make her lose faith that things will turn out OK. So Lisa’s response to the generous leave policy will be focused on how it can lead to trouble.
Example of a Deprived Response
Now let’s think about Eric, another theoretical Netflix employee. Eric is angry about the parental leave policy, because in his mind the policy provides a huge benefit to some people, but not to him. Why should he subsidize new parents? He had his youngest child a decade ago, and now he is expected to pick up the slack when Diana and Lisa take extended vacations, as he sees it, when their babies arrive. Eric is outraged at the unfairness of it all. Consumed unconsciously by his own issues of neglect, he cannot buy into the communitarian ideals of the importance of everyone supporting the birth of babies and the solid development of well bonded families.
Eric is focused on what is unfair about life. Chances are that he experienced unfairness as a young child. One could imagine a scenario where his mother became pregnant when he was just a few months old, thus shutting him off from the undivided emotional attention he needed as a wee one; a pregnant woman can’t help but be focused on the baby in her womb. Perhaps Eric’s parents divorced, leaving him with the inevitable unfair split loyalties caused by divorce. Maybe his best friend moved away in the first grade, and he had no one to help him deal with the feelings of abandonment he had. We can assume that multiple incidents and situations shaped Eric’s view of life as being unfair from a very early age.
Change tends to bring out whatever issues we have, that have not been appropriately dealt with. Netflix will be cheered by many, and judged by others, for daring to throw a creative monkey wrench into the works by inviting its employees to take up to a year off to bond with babies. Decisions made by these new parents are likely to have significant effects on their babies. Let’s hope that those who have negative reactions to generous corporate support for parents might find the courage and insight to consider whether some therapy might be a helpful tool to help them come to terms with a changing world and their place in it.
Lang, M., “Unlimited Parental Leave May Not Be the Best”, San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 2015.
Siegel, D. and Hartzell, M., Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2004