I logged into the online meeting site and waited for my client to join me. It was nearly our appointed hour, and I knew Isabella was juggling a heavy load both at work and at home. She had been doing a great job of prioritizing her over-stretched schedule to include the executive coaching meetings and the intellectual and emotional work they require.
She popped up on the screen, and we began. The usual banter gave way to the open-ended starter questions, and Isabella responded thoughtfully, if not dutifully. Something seemed off, and so we paused.
Finally, she confessed, “I am afraid I am not a good mother. The job requires so much, and I am so tired when I get home. I’m struggling to justify being at work.” This would not be so remarkable if it hadn’t been the third time I’d heard an immensely capable young leader grappling so intensely with this very topic in as many weeks.
UNFORTUNATELY, GENDER ROLE EXPECTATIONS PERSIST
I have had the honor and pleasure of executive coaching a number of young, incredibly talented women leaders who are on the cusp of their next big career step. I have found that this question of “being good enough” is mostly a female quandary. While I have worked with male executives that have struggled to define boundaries and prioritize family participation, I have yet to feel the intense emotional grief I hear in their female counterparts.
Although gender roles are changing and expanding for all identities, we are still bogged down by society’s stereotypes. In her book entitled Self-Compassion¹, Kristen Neff points out, “. . . the idea that women should be selfless caregivers hasn’t really gone away. It’s just that women are now supposed to be successful at their careers in addition to being the loving wife and ultimate nurturer at home.” She goes on to point out that women “. . . tend to judge themselves relentlessly in the belief that they should be doing more.”
So, what can we do to help one another with this dilemma? There are no set prescriptions or rules to follow, but rather a series of options and suggestions to try.
7 TIPS TO HELP WORKING PARENTS THRIVE
1. Know yourself and define your reason. Set the guilt aside; and ask yourself, “Why am I working?” This requires soul-searching and honesty. I remember a TV interview with an accomplished woman who had a big public job. She was asked (inappropriately) about how she justified being away from her family so much. Her answer made an impact on me, “I love my children, and they know I am here for them AND my job makes a difference. I have a goal to be an interesting person so my kids will want to be around me as they become adults.” Brilliant. She was saying that she needed to contribute and do interesting work, and she felt she was a better person for it, her kids were better for it, and they all had more opportunity as a result. Purpose is powerful not matter your demographics – articulate why you are working!
2. Be confident in who your children are with at all times. Undoubtedly, we cannot be completely present and focused on a demanding job if we are worried about the care and attention our children are experiencing.
3. Define your support needs. This is a tricky one because it is complicated. While we think of working parents’ support primarily as competent child care, there are additional, often under- appreciated, support needs to consider. Spouses/partners need to determine how to balance all those “other” family responsibilities such as picking up school supplies, being the required snack provider for events, baking the birthday cake, making lunches, researching and signing kids up for activities, managing permission slips, etc. The women I have coached often, if not always, have the lion’s share of this plethora of extra time commitments. It is often taken for granted and rarely acknowledged for the daily time and energy demanded by it. It doesn’t have to be this way if partners work together to divide and conquer these commitments.
4. Manage your work boundaries. I know this is easier said than done. Is there someone in your organization who does this well? Observe how they work, what they delegate; ask them for tips and advice. Ask yourself how you can trade one hour of work time for family time. Build a case for flex time if it makes sense in your organization.
5. Focus on quality of time vs. quantity. When you are with your family, be mindful, present, play, LISTEN, include everyone when practical, develop family rituals. One young parent started planning, cooking, and eating dinner with the kids. Another played a short game together before starting homework. Did they do it every day? Nope. So, along with this message is the reality that this is simply not possible all the time. We get tired, and balancing presence and self- compassion is a necessary art. Remember, the most important take-away for kids is just to know you are there, even when you’re wiped out; you show up. . . AND they can start learning about empathy for others. Improving the quality of family time can go a long way to make up for quantity, but it shouldn’t become an additional stressor.
6. Take care of yourself; energize. Science is repeatedly proving the negative impact of stress and sleeplessness on cognitive abilities. Our thinking is slower, less clear, and our decision-making suffers without rest. The truth is that we cannot be our best without time to rejuvenate. So, build rituals that enable you to get plenty of sleep, move your body, eat well, and connect with positive people! Take your own needs seriously.
7. Allow yourself to be human. This bears repeating. Your plan won’t work all the time. Practice self-compassion; give yourself a break and then refocus your energy! If you fall off the movement ritual or go on a junk-food jag, be willing to put it behind you and get back on track. Everyone fails — it’s how you get back up that matters most, and your kids will learn this as well.
I would be remiss if I led anyone to believe that working in a job outside the home is the only way for a person to be interesting or fulfilled. I am seeing more young parents choosing to stay home and be an at-home role-model in lieu of working in an organization. With a little tweaking, the above suggestions are equally applicable to the challenges of being an at-home-jack-of-all-trades, as many parents are.
The bottom line is that a happy person is a good role model for children, so let’s get you on a path of well-being and thriving at work and at home!
SIDE NOTE: I have focused here on individuals strategies; however, there is much that organizations could and should be doing to help alleviate the stress of balancing young families and demanding work. Look for a future blog on this!
For more on the M6 Model and my approach to coaching, take a look at my website and other blog posts about Life Coaching and Organization Development.
¹Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.