Bad. Guilty. Failing. Lonely. Do those words strike a chord? I’ll make a gentle guess that they do, because in my one-on-one coaching sessions with working parents over the past several years, I’ve heard those four words more than any others.
And that was before Covid-19.
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.
Daisy Dowling is the founder and CEO of Workparent, a specialty coaching and advisory firm focused on working parents. She is the author of Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids, forthcoming from Harvard Business Review Press in May 2021.
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.
We also need to start shaping what working parenthood will look like when the pandemic subsides, as far away as that may sound. This new normal has been stressful, unmanageable, and overwhelming — but we can’t go back to the old normal, because no matter how rosy it might seem right now, pre-2020 wasn’t good for working parents either. In this terrible situation, and with so much in flux, we need to take a new, distinct approach — one that can help fashion our own working-parent experiences.
In this article 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.
Before we dive into 2.0, let’s look at how we got into this mess in the first place. With that understanding, we’ll be ready to start getting ourselves out.
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.
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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.
Those impressions led you to believe that this is possible if I work hard enough or that good parents eat with their kids, or something similar. But your life is most likely very different, in many ways, from that firmly ingrained working-parent template. In those TV shows, maybe one parent worked and the other focused on the home front. Today that’s true for only 25% of American working families; the rest are dual-career or single-parent. Maybe in the past family members spent the bulk of their working years with a single employer; but statistically speaking, you’ll probably be in your current role for only four years — and you may be feeling pressure to network and manage your LinkedIn profile during what would otherwise be family time. Remember also: If your role models had kids prior to 2007, they didn’t have to work and parent amid the always-on expectations and 24/7 pressures created by the smartphone. In other words, being a working parent doesn’t just feel harder than your template tells you it should be. It actually is. As the pandemic has so clearly revealed, we carry an extraordinarily heavy load, yet even in extremis, we’re left on our own and left holding ourselves to unrealistic expectations.
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.
As the challenges pile up, your values — your identity — start taking a hit: Why can’t I figure this out? I’ve always been a hard worker. I should be able to handle this. Other people can. (Reminder: They can’t.)
As you find yourself unable to “solve” the situation, the tension and self-criticism ratchet up further: What kind of mother/father am I, making these kinds of career choices and giving my kids short shrift? The kids need me, but my colleagues are watching; I’ll never get promoted, delivering like this. Now, roiled by negative emotions, you start to draw big-picture comparisons: My parents sat down for dinner with us every night; why can’t I manage? I used to be focused at work and a more present parent, and in this pandemic I’m neither.
It all started with a single email, but now — wham! — here you are, feeling ground down, fed up, conflicted, and alone. And if you’re part of a group that isn’t always actively included in the working-parent dialogue — if you’re a dad, LGBTQIA+, or the parent of older children, for example — the feeling of isolation can be even more acute.
That’s a crummy place to be, and when we’re this distracted and depleted, it becomes extremely difficult to be the very best parents we can be or to deliver a great performance at work. And if all 50+ million of us U.S. working moms and dads (or similar ranks in another country) stay collectively pinned down under bad, guilty, failing, lonely or suffering from an acute case of Why can’t I make this work?, how powerfully or effectively can we support one another or advocate for those much-needed policies and programs?
I want to be crystal clear here: I’m not suggesting that we’re somehow to blame for the current working-parent state of affairs, and I’m not letting corporations, government, or other institutions off the hook. But I do believe that as individuals and as working-parent peers, we can contribute to the solution by shifting our own approach. Back in Working Parenthood 1.0 we buckled down and pushed ourselves to make things work, no matter what the cost. Let’s stop doing that. Instead, let’s become more realistic and authentic in our dual roles, and at the same time better stewards and advocates for ourselves and one another.
What Working Parenthood 2.0 Looks Like
Below are glimpses of how 2.0 could work and how, through a few specific and powerful first moves, we can begin to make combining career and family more straightforward, feasible, and satisfying.
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.
In the coming days, pick a line between career and kids, and do your best to stick to it. That line can be real or virtual. If you’re working remotely, maybe you check messages only at your desk, think of yourself as professionally “on” only while wearing shoes that aren’t sneakers, or decide to disengage from work at a certain time each evening. If you’re working a long day or night onsite, think about using the trip home to clear the mental space to be fully present for your kids. Create a tangible reminder if you can: One of my clients touches a small piece of artwork as if it were a light switch when moving from work into parenting or personal mode.
You may have to make many such transitions every day, but each time you do, try to allow yourself to be fully there, whether in a meeting, on a call, or eating dinner with the kids. If that sounds aspirational, break it down: Try a small step, such as putting your phone away for 20 minutes each evening, and then gradually erect additional borders over time. You’ll still have too much to do, but building those dividing lines should come as a relief. Separate things out, and you’ll feel more attentive, competent, and you in each sphere.
Re-stake. You’ve probably been advised to “ditch the working-parent guilt.” But that’s impossible. Guilt is the natural emotional by-product of acting, even in a small-scale way, in opposition to your genuine, closely held values. If you believe My kids come first but skip the bedtime routine to make (yet another) work deadline, you’ll feel strain and self-recrimination. You can’t “ditch” that feeling, because doing so would involve either renouncing your children as the center of your life or somehow becoming impervious to your own emotions, like a sociopath.
Try a small step, such as putting your phone away for 20 minutes each evening, and then gradually erect additional borders over time.
What will help take the temperature down, and what you can do, is re-stake: Firmly plant your values flag, even in rocky situations. Let’s say you missed bedtime because you had to jump on yet another call or work overtime, and your kids got really upset. As the guilt surges, tell yourself: My kids come first, and I make it my priority to be there for them. Because of events at work — the work I do to support our family — I had to miss bedtime tonight. That doesn’t change my commitment or who I am. I am a devoted mother/father, and my kids come first. In re-staking, you acknowledge the conflict and the full reality of what just happened, but you stay in charge of the emotional territory. Of course, if you find yourself constantly working overtime and re-staking around it, you’ll want to pull back. That’s an honest reorientation, not defensiveness.
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.
You can certainly continue that way — but why keep on with the “parenting is unmentionable unless a baby is crying in the background” game? Maybe in year-end conversations, when discussing your accomplishments, you could slide something in and even get a little credit: In 2020 I worked as many hours as last year, and did so while managing significant personal challenges as the parent of two children. You’re not complaining or bragging; you’re still businesslike, while acknowledging the reality of what you did. Maybe that feels awkward — but so did the first time your toddler wandered onscreen during a Zoom meeting.
If you’re worried about your job, or you’re in a sector or a chain of command where pushing the envelope simply feels like a nonstarter, think about a less career-risky way to fold the topic into bigger-picture professional conversations. Have a closed-door conversation with a mentor about your longer-term plans for flexibility. Or ask a slightly more senior colleague for advice about managing a career and kids; even the crustiest coworker softens up when approached for personal advice. The point is to help normalize a topic that may have been considered taboo.
Be inclusive. A common habit I’ve seen in even working-parent-friendly workplaces is focusing all the effort and attention on what I call “visible” working parents — those who have asked for some kind of flexibility, are just back from leave, or have young children. That makes sense: It’s natural to focus on the parents we think need help the most.
The tricky bit is that working parents come in all packages — male, female, gay, straight, biologic, adoptive, with older kids rather than babies — and most are feeling the pinch even if they don’t talk about it. There are also the colleagues who aren’t yet parents but already have their eye on how, longer term, it will be possible to make career and family work.
So think about how to bring them in. If your organization has a working-parents’ network, ensure that invitations are broadly distributed and explicitly welcome “all parents, current and future” (for example). If you’re interviewing a prospective hire, mention your own kids and make it clear that you’re happy to talk about what life at your organization is like for caregivers. If you’re looking for working-parent mentors, or want to become one, deliberately seek out conversations with parents who have profiles and roles different from yours. If you’re a new mom, try asking a dad, or a parent with teenage kids, for advice.
Effectively, you’ll be taking that old adage about having a “personal board of directors” and going for it, working-parent style. One of my coaches, a female attorney, was surprised when a male partner-level colleague gave her “the best” advice on making the transition from one child to two. Regardless of the difference bridged, a new perspective can be quite useful; and just as important, you’ve created a bond. For both your own benefit and that of other parents, widen the circle: Find ways in which to underscore that we’re all in this together.
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.
You may not work in the benefits department or in corporate communications, but you can — very constructively and tactfully — try to enlist their support. Send an email to your HR rep suggesting that a single “working-parent resources” splash page, with click-throughs, forms, explanations, and contact numbers for all relevant benefits, would be useful and appreciated. Several organizations I work with have sent companywide messages from senior leaders summarizing what’s available. Such pull-it-together communications save tons of organizational time (including the HR person’s).
In a more active, grassroots way, offer to talk with newer parents in your department about your experience using the backup day care center, or let HR know that you’re open to speaking at an info session. Learning what to pack in the diaper bag before drop-off or how well managed you found the center will provide a nervous new parent much-needed direction and reassurance. If you’re in a small or an entrepreneurial organization, try politely flagging lower-cost, useful resources that your employer might consider offering. Maybe your startup can’t provide subsidized, center-based backup childcare but could cover employees’ annual subscription to a local on-demand sitter service.
As you provide practical help to other working parents and help normalize their concerns, you’ll feel more personally empowered too.
Contribute to — or start — a working-parents network group. Employee groups (often referred to as affinity networks, resource groups, or ERGs) for working parents are quickly becoming commonplace in large and midsize organizations. If yours didn’t have one, or plans for one, in January 2020, chances are good that it does now. At its best, such a group can be an easy, free way to connect with other parents whose professional experience is similar to yours; to get advice, tips, and encouragement; and to stave off the sense of I’m in this alone. That said, many groups lack a distinct focus or a sense of how to provide members with the most immediate value.
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.
. . .
If all this feels hard to take in or seems like a lot to ask of yourself right now, I’m right there with you. Any one of these changes feels big; together, they’re daunting. As I sit hunched over my improvised work-from-home desk eight months into this pandemic, it’s hard to imagine wearing regular business clothes — much less feeling vigorous and on my front foot testing out new moves as either a professional or a parent. Even as someone who coaches other working parents for a living, I find the introspection, reframing, modeling, and advocacy required to make the changes I’ve described here alternately bold and doable or risky and overwhelming. What if I draw firm professional boundaries and get judged for it, or my business suffers? What if I connect with other smart working parents but we fail to come up with good collective solutions? What if we all do our best and nothing changes?
Then, from the next room, I get the encouragement I need to at least try this, to make a start. Because we’re still mid-pandemic, and my kids are distance learning, my seven-year-old is dialed into math class via my creaky old iPad. The teacher is explaining number bonds: how to stack different components and add smaller bits together and use different routes to reach an intended answer.
Thirty years from now, I don’t want my daughter trapped in bad, guilty, failing, lonely, and you don’t want your kids to feel that way either. We want them to achieve their very fullest potential, as professionals, parents, and people. And we’re going to have to start using new components and taking different routes today to help them — and us — get there.