Shifting the realities of working parents

What is it really like to be a working parent?  We have spoken with many career-driven working parents and have heard similar stories. The reality of new parenthood was different from their expectations. They were surprised by just how intense the demands of a newborn are. They struggled with the sleep deprivation and the physicality of new parenthood. Many birth mothers were not prepared for their change in self-identity and the impact it had on them.  Returning to work required careful planning and the right mix of childcare, new routines, self-advocacy, and emotional resilience.

“There is not enough education on how to support parents returning from work.” – Principal at Top Consulting Firm

The idea of the super mom and super dad (less common) is damaging. These ideas set the wrong expectations. They put unnecessary pressure on parents and discount the everyday experiences of real parents.

Managing balance of career and home

What is it really like to be a working parent? A working parent is someone with two jobs. They work from the morning until they arrive at work. They leave work to work and they work after their kids go to sleep. ‘Family’ work fits in around ‘work’ work. Their‘ family’ work is easier when shared with a co-parent. In many co-parent families, this work defaults to the primary caregiver, usually the birth mother. This has many implications, one of them being the perception by employers that mothers are not as devoted to their work.

Working mothers tend to manage the balance differently from working fathers. According to a study conducted in Australia, “flexible work” often means the lines between work and home are becoming increasingly blurred for both. “We know that mothers often work part-time and fathers are more likely to work long hours. Our research suggests that mothers accommodate family by compressing their workday, missing breaks and working after hours to fit everything in; while fathers have to accommodate family within long workdays by performing family-related tasks at work,” said lead researcher Stacey Hokke.

Penalties for parents

Employers tend to put more value on facetime, leading to the motherhood penalty. “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” said Claudia Goldin in her 2014 study: “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter.”

There is no fatherhood penalty. In fact, men are more likely to benefit financially from having a family than being penalized. There may be a fatherhood penalty at home in that their ability to share the role of primary caregiver is limited as the ‘other’ parent often does not have the same options.

Cultural expectations and how they translate into habits and behaviors are responsible for these penalties. We need to change the narrative around parenthood. Policies are also responsible. If we want the parenthood burden not to be seen as a burden, it needs to be shared by society.  We need to treat all parents as equal in their responsibilities and in our expectations. We need to change systems to accommodate and support working parents.

Set your own rules

Even though social and policy constructs are not completely in your favor today, there are steps you can take to make your own outcomes better as working parent.

  1. Understand and prioritize your needs. Know what success in your career and success in your personal life means to you.  Then figure out how to fit both of those pieces together.  For example, you may find that you need to change your role so you have a manager that values your work output and not face-time.  You may need to order high quality pre-made baby food because you care a lot about nutrition but making it yourself is just not realistic.
  2. Be an advocate for yourself. Learn how to ask for what you need. Learn how to ask for it in a way that increases your chances of getting it.  Find mentors (female, male or non-binary) who know how to do this and who can guide you.  Find peers so you can support each other.
  3. Be a true partner with your co-parent.  During pregnancy start having conversations about your individual goals and your goals as a family. Divide the work so both of you can succeed.  Be willing to have honest and difficult conversations.
  4. Remember to take care of yourself.  You are working to make work + family work.  You need to be whole as a person and whole in your relationships to stay true to your needs and goals.  Make time to take care of yourself.  Make time to invest in the relationships in your life that are meaningful and bring you strength and joy.  Personal resilience is built on healthy relationships and personal well-being. Start small but be consistent.  Set time aside each week for you and for your most important relationships. If you have a busy week and that time gets lost that week, just start again the following week.

Change the rules

Model the behaviors you want to see. Be an advocate for policies that support working parents.  Be a mentor to other parents (all parents) to change cultural expectations.  Be empathetic to others and keep in mind that everyone experiences life transitions differently. It may have been easier for you. It may have been harder for you.  Don’t assume you know someone else’s experience. Just ask.

If you are interested in advocacy, check out MomRising.org to learn about the importance of paid family & medical leave and opportunities to get involved.

For further reading:

Does Flexible ‘Work’ Work for Aussie Parents?
A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter
Parenting as a Team

More resources