September is a joyous time of year for the 39 million American families with two employed parents. With a summer of fractured childcare in the rearview mirror, we breathe a sigh of relief to be able to resume a better balance of family and work life. But just as we feel ourselves starting to relax, it hits us: the school calendar has a slower start than we hoped for, then gets punctured with various “vacations” that go unrecognized by most employers. Then there will be winter holidays and unanticipated snow days, spring vacations. Then summer again. September relief… not so much.
In truth, it isn’t just families with the under-five’s who struggle with locating sufficient childcare to make the professional-family life balance viable. It’s a much lengthier struggle than most politicians or policymakers will acknowledge. And it isn’t only economically under-resourced folks who find themselves pulling out their hair to sort out childcare. School calendars were built around the assumption of one stay at home parent. Consider these routine examples: 9:00am meet and greets with the principal, weekly 12:30pm early releases, after school activities that routinely start at 3:30pm… Since the majority of American families now have two working parents, this assumption doesn’t apply for most of us. Despite the fact that many schools now offer before- and after-school options, the solutions are often inadequate to allow working parents to meet the needs of their professional lives.
Let’s break down some practical components. A hard truth—schools and daycares will close on days that workers are expected to work. And even when they are open, the hours (even including before- and after-care options) are insufficient to meet the demands of many jobs.
Plus, even on days when your child has a place to go and be cared for and educated, there will be complications. For one thing, kids have this nasty habit of getting sick. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a kid with a non-contagious illness, or else one you can mask (I’ve heard *some* immoral parents have tried this, but of course I wouldn’t know of any personally). But even in this scenario, your sad puppy may fervently request to stay home and snuggle with you. Worse, you may want to stay home for those sweet sick-day cuddles. Even outside of sick days there’s all sorts of school “events” that any good parent knows they must attend or face judgement.
It’s a complicated matter to sort out where to put your child when they are too young to wander around the neighborhood alone. But you do have a job that requires you to… do a job. Still, the solution isn’t so simple as finding a place to stuff your little darlings for the day. Because pawning our kids off somewhere or anywhere isn’t a solution most parents feel good about.
The crux of the psychological dilemma faced by most working parents is that we self-identify both as professionals, and as parents. Both of these identities matter deeply. Even with financial pressure or the desire to develop a professional identity and make a contribution to the world outside the home, you may still long to engage in the leading role of ‘parent’. Availability of more and higher quality childcare or even fewer school or daycare vacations cannot eliminate this tension.
And while we do need to continue to work towards funding better and more childcare, the election focus on increasing resources misses an essential point—that is, that many workers want to also be deeply engaged as parents, even while they want to prioritize their professional responsibilities. We want to be available to our children more than our work schedule can accommodate, and we also long to devote ourselves more intensely to excellence in our work life. Delegating away either of these responsibilities is simply unrealistic, and perhaps even undesirable. After all, individuals who pursue lives that embody both fulfilled family and work life are likely to be happier.
While this is a true dilemma for working parents, there is a more pleasant way to look at the “conflict” between work and family: that is, work-family enrichment. Work-family enrichment is defined as the extent to which experiences in either work or family improve the other2. In other words, you can thank your uncompromising boss for helping to hone your skills in negotiating with your two-year old (distract ’em with promises of what fun surprises are in store for tomorrow if today disappoints). And you can thank your two-year old for providing you with the ability to generate creative, fresh-eyed solutions to workplace dilemmas.
Childcare reform that enables access to high quality care for more parents is clearly a necessity. But it will also be critical for policymakers to take a more nuanced approach. Working parents aspire to nurture their children and do their professional duties well. Rather than focusing exclusively on ways to fund better childcare, policymakers should increase attention on helping parents to sustain engagement in both worlds. Such approaches might work to incentivize increased job flexibility, prioritize quality and creativity over quantity of work, and capitalize on the enrichment of skills available through dual involvement in parenting and professional life.
It will, at the same time, be important for working parents and policymakers to recognize that policy and workplace reform are only a part of the solution. Looking deeper into our own psychology is required for real progress to be made. For one: revamping of our definition of successful balancing of work and parenting responsibilities might be a useful starting point. Such a definition might include more focus on effective engagement in both important worlds, and less on excellence or perfection in either.
Let’s acknowledge that while working parents relish relief from childcare duties, that we also find great joy in our childcare duties (c’mon, just admit it–your little buggers are fun). And while we bemoan the chains that bind us to our work computers, we also find great satisfaction in making professional contributions (hand to God, there is satisfaction to be had in doing a job well. Plus, getting a paycheck feels pretty damn good, and you haven’t yet been offered pay to care for your own child).
Both of these worlds contribute to the core of who we are as humans and make for a deeply meaningful life. So even when we mourn dropping our professional or parenting ball, we might pause to appreciate the gifts derived from this complicated juggling act.
- Dell’Antonia K. The Families That Can’t Afford Summer. 20216; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/sunday-review/the-families-that-cant-afford-summer.html?_r=0.
- Greenhaus JH, Powell GN. When work and family are allies: A theory of work-family enrichment. The Academy of Management Review. 2006;31(1):72-92.