Over the past eight months, managing work and kids has accelerated from a complex, persistent challenge into an all-out crisis. We’ve had to handle full-time jobs, full-time care, and full-time oversight of our kids’ education, without the benefit of our regular support systems. One of my clients returned to work from her first parental leave in March and has worked an around-the-clock schedule since, without any childcare. Like so many other parents, she wonders how long she can, as she puts it, “hang on.” Other parents I’ve coached and interviewed are trying to figure out how to manage frontline jobs and distance learning, or to hold on to their income while assuming 24/7 care for a child with special needs.
I think it’s safe to say that in 2020 we’ve reached a working-parent low.
I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over. I’m deeply grateful for what I have — health, family, work, shelter — and I’m acutely aware that others have it much tougher. Yet as I write this, with my laptop balanced on the corner of my kitchen counter, one eye on client emails and the other on my seven-year-old, who’s completing a math worksheet, I wish I could find a trapdoor that leads away from this situation, offering a magical escape. If you’re facing the terrible strain of combining a career and caregiving, I’m sure you feel the same.
It’s natural to feel beaten down and nostalgic for pre-pandemic life (who isn’t reminiscing a little about 2019?), but we can’t let those feelings and desires lure us into short-term thinking. We’re working, and we’re parenting. We’re in this. And we have to find ways, however small, to make it less miserable — to take back some measure of control.
In this blog, I will describe what Working Parenthood 2.0 could look like and lay out several simple, feasible first steps toward it — steps that will also provide a bit of immediate relief. As counterintuitive as this may seem, I’m going to focus here on individual approaches and actions. Widespread, structural supports for working parents, such as parental leave and affordable day care, are absolutely essential, and we’re clearly lagging on those. But extricating ourselves — and helping extricate one another — from feeling bad, guilty, failing, lonely is essential to weathering the rest of the crisis and to pushing for the bigger changes that our families, our organizations, and our communities need.
The Bad, Guilty, Failing, Lonely Trap
One of the most damaging misconceptions I hear from working parents — and I hear it every single day — is that they’re struggling while other parents are managing or thriving. Let me say this clearly: It’s not just you. The kinds of practical problems you face and the deep, disconcerting feelings you have about them are both common and completely normal. As one of the few people who have spent years in a unique ringside seat observing the current realities of working parenthood, I’m guessing that those realities are not what you’re measuring yourself against.
Instead, when you think “working parent,” you may think of your parents or grandparents, and how despite working hard to earn a living, they sat down to dinner with you every night. Or of the more-senior leaders in your organization who somehow seem to make working parenthood work. Or even back to old TV shows you watched growing up, in which parents were apparently able to balance the personal and the professional without undue strain.
That imbalance is one of the main triggers of bad, guilty, failing, lonely feelings. It usually presents, and compounds, something like this: During what’s supposed to be family time, you get an important message from a colleague. When you turn away from your children to answer it — for the umpteenth time this week — you feel both under pressure and at fault: I have to respond, but here I go again, ignoring the kids. The challenge also comes in the other direction: You’re pulled away from work to look after a sick child or to supervise homework, for example.
What Working Parenthood 2.0 Looks Like
I think of 2.0 as having four essential elements: (1) a frank and no-apologies view of yourself as a single, whole, and complete person — even while performing two distinct and important roles; (2) more open, frequent, and satisfying connections with other working parents (and with colleagues who don’t have children); (3) a broadening of the working-parent “we” — more connections with working parents of various kinds; and (4) perhaps most crucial, a bias toward visibility and action.
These elements are only a start but also eternal. They can help us get through the remainder of the Covid-19 era. They’re also crucial to making working parenthood work, for all of us and over the long haul. As you read, a few may strike you as more achievable or less, and all four together may feel overwhelming. My advice: Focus on what’s achievable now. That might be one action or a few. Whatever the case, think about how you might take them forward — for yourself, for your bosses and colleagues, and for your organization.
To short-circuit bad, guilty, failing, lonely, you need to ramp up your own sense of confidence and control. There are certainly many ways to do that, and if you’ve already found that exercise, a spiritual practice, mentoring, or any other habit or community helps keep you energized and in charge, then by all means stick with it. Like most of my coachees, however, you’ll probably benefit from two additional, deliberate approaches.
Create distinct boundaries between work and family. For years we’ve trained our sights on work-life integration, the well-intentioned idea that you should bring together the two spheres of your life in a more seamless way — say, by attending a child’s sports tournament while keeping a watchful eye on the messages rolling in from work. Unfortunately, and particularly now during the pandemic, the seams have all but disappeared. It feels as if there’s no division between work and parenting: We spend the majority of our time in hypervigilant split-screen mode, scrambling to simultaneously parent and deliver the professional goods, all while wearing ourselves down and feeling less than effective at both — and that hurts. It’s time to (re)draw our boundaries.
Try a small step, such as putting your phone away for 20 minutes each evening, and then gradually erect additional borders over time.
If you find it hard to re-stake in the moment, forecast a little. Look over your calendar for the coming week and spot where you may naturally feel a little guilty or conflicted — by that deadline on Wednesday, for example. When the time comes, and the negative feelings appear, you’ll be in a better position to declaw them.
With your Bosses and Colleagues
If this pandemic has had one positive outcome, it’s a greater (if coerced) openness about what combining career and caregiving really looks like. Pre-pandemic, you may have deliberately limited the amount of “parenting stuff” you took to work and felt sheepish about your kids’ interrupting calls. Now that’s no longer feasible, so most of us have become more direct, forthcoming, and unabashed with our coworkers and bosses about parenting needs. As a result, we’re beginning to realize that we’re not alone in our challenges and struggles. Now we can take the next few steps toward being visible and in this together.
Bring working-parent issues up in a career-related, rather than a task-related, context. So your boss has seen your four-year-old running around the house during a video call. That’s one thing. But how will you raise the “working-parent issue” in your next career conversation or performance review or feedback meeting — or job interview? In the past you probably wouldn’t have. Those moments would have been completely professional.
At the Organizational Level
As an individual parent in any organization — particularly a large one or one where there’s been little dialogue about working-parent issues — it’s easy to feel powerless. Nevertheless, you can help your company or institution improve its support of parents in a few important ways.
Encourage benefits bundling and transparency. Most organizations are adept at designing and structuring benefits relevant to working parents — but less effective at communicating them in a user-oriented way and in destigmatizing their use. Even if a flex-work policy and backup day care are available, chances are that your manager doesn’t know the details, you’ll have to ask multiple people to get the information you need, and the enrollment forms live hidden in various corners of your company’s intranet. I routinely ask coachees what family benefits they’ve used or have available to them, and 95% of the time the answer is “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure how to sign up” or “That’s just for people who are really in trouble.” Transparency has improved during the pandemic, but it’s helpful to clear things up even further. Otherwise, too many moms and dads may go without the practical support and reassurance they could access or spend too much time and energy getting it.
As you provide practical help to other working parents and help normalize their concerns, you’ll feel more personally empowered too.
You can play a powerful part here. If your organization doesn’t yet have a group, consider spearheading one. Invite the other parents you know — and the other parents they know — throughout the organization to meet at a specific time and share tips and tricks for a common working-parent challenge such as time management or finding new care arrangements. If you keep the invites inclusive and the conversation practical, the group will probably gain traction.
If a group already exists, consider offering to host a targeted, solutions-oriented session. Book a time and invite network members to join you to discuss the most useful smartphone apps for working parents, for example. Or if you’re an accountant, offer to explain those child-related tax credits. (Let’s face it: Few of us really understand them.) Or invite a “friend of the company” with a career in education to discuss some aspect of the remote-learning challenge. You could help set up a Slack channel for adoptive parents; create a small subgroup of volunteers willing to take “phone a friend” calls from colleagues just back from leave; or set up an informal peer-to-peer mentoring program for parents thinking about career advancement and transitions. As you provide practical help to other working parents and help normalize their concerns, you’ll feel more personally empowered too.
If you or your network group’s leaders are looking for more advice about group composition, leadership, and activities, you can find it here.
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