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A working parent’s survival guide


August 18, 2019

More than 50 million Americans are juggling jobs and child-rearing — and finding that hard to do. According to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center, 65 percent of working parents with college degrees in the US reported that it was “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to meet the simultaneous demands of work and family. Statistics are equally striking in other countries.

Working parenthood requires you to handle an endless stream of to-do’s, problems and awkward situations. There’s no playbook or clear benchmarks for success, and candid discussion with managers can feel taboo; you might worry about being labelled as unfocused, whiny or worse.

Under these conditions, it’s normal to get tired, doubt your own choices and view your life as a constant improvisation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the challenges working parents face are many and vary in detail, the majority fall into certain core categories. When people recognise this and learn to see patterns in the strains they’re facing, they will immediately feel more capable and in charge.

Understanding the core challenges

When facing the pressures of working parenthood, ask yourself: What kind of difficulty am I dealing with? Most likely, it’s one or more of the following:

Transition: This challenge occurs when your status quo has been upended and you’re scrambling to adapt. Going back to work after parental leave is the classic, visible example.

Practicalities: This challenge consists of all the to-do’s and logistical matters, large and small, that consume so much of your days — and nights. Searching for the right child care, making it to the paediatrician’s appointment on time and getting the kids fed each evening all fall into this category.

Communication: You face this challenge when you’ve got working-parent matters to discuss and you find yourself at a loss for words or at risk of being misunderstood. Perhaps you are asking your boss for a flexible working arrangement or telling your 5-year-old that you’ll be travelling for work again.

Loss: Maybe the baby took her first steps while you were at work, or you weren’t staffed to a career-making project because you made a decision to work fewer hours. Now you’re worried you’ve missed out on what’s truly important.

Identity: You experience this challenge when grappling with the inevitable either/or thinking and personal conflict that comes with working parenthood. Will Thursday find you at your son’s debate tournament or at the big sales meeting with the new client? Are you a hard charger or a nurturing, accessible parent? Which is right, and which is you? You wish you had clearer answers.

Solutions — and prevention: As every working parent knows, these challenges are never 100 percent resolved. They can, however, be pre-empted and managed. Below are five of the most powerful ways to do that:

Rehearsing: Transitions are inevitable, but they’re made easier through practice. For example, if you’re returning from parental leave, stage an “as if” morning a few days early: Get the baby ready, do the care giving handover and commute as though you’re really going to work. Run-throughs like these reveal potential snags and give you time to iron out the wrinkles.

Auditing and planning: Like every busy working parent, you’re doing more and have a broader range of commitments than ever before. That means that you need to become as mindful and deliberate as possible about where your time and sweat equity are going and why. Try sitting down with your calendar, your to-do list and a red pen. Highlight the commitments, tasks and obligations you could have put off, handled more efficiently, delegated, automated or said no to over the past two weeks. The personal insights that come out of this exercise (“I say yes too often”; “I can be a perfectionist”) will help you make more conscious judgments about your time.

Framing: To make communication easier and more effective, put it inside a frame, defined on four sides by your priorities, next steps, commitment and enthusiasm. Let’s say it’s a particularly hectic afternoon at work, but you need to duck out of the office for your daughter’s ballet recital. Tell colleagues, “I’m leaving now for my daughter’s recital, but I’ll be back at 3:30. I’ll tackle the marketing summary then, so we have a fresh version to review tomorrow. I’m looking forward to getting this in front of the client!” With a statement like that you will have taken control of your own narrative and kept it positive.

Using ‘today plus 20 years’ thinking: As a professional, you probably have incentives to focus on the intermediate term: You’re rewarded for completing that six-month project or meeting your annual revenue targets. But as a working parents, that time horizon is emotionally treacherous. If you’re just back from parental leave, for example, sitting miserably at your desk and missing the baby, it can be crushing to think forward six months.

Try thinking very short-term and very long-term instead. Yes, you do miss the baby terribly right now, but you’ll be home to see her in a few hours — and years from now you know you’ll have provided her with a superb example of tenacity and hard work.

Revisiting and recasting: Most of us have deeply ingrained views of who we are as professionals. But it’s important to revisit and update the details of those identities after becoming parents. If responsiveness has always been a key part of your identity, for example, now during family dinner you’re likely to feel torn: irresponsible if you ignore your smartphone and guilt-ridden as a parent if you check it.

Recasting certain aspects of your identity doesn’t mean lowering your standards; it means defining important new ones. To help in the process, try completing the following sentences: “I am a working-parent professional who … ”; “I prioritise work responsibilities when … ”; and “My kids come before work when … .”

You may decide that instead of putting so much weight on being responsive,

you are going to think of yourself as a thoughtful or articulate communicator — and you may vow that, barring a work emergency, your kids take precedence during dinner.

Working parenthood isn’t easy. It’s a big, complex, emotional and sometimes all-consuming struggle. But as with any challenge, the more you break it down, the less daunting it becomes.

With a clearer view of the issues you’re facing you’ll be better able to succeed at work — and be the mother or father you want to be at home.