On Monday mornings I cavort with two small superheroes outfitted in bright red capes and felt eye masks. The larger of these superheroes is fast. During a neighborhood jaunt, he catches the eye of a driver at a stop sign and silently challenges him to a race. Determined to prove that superheroes can outperform automobiles, he churns his skinny five-year-old legs as quickly as he can. The tinier superhero tries to keep up with his big brother, committing to the waddling run of a two-year-old with an enormously round belly. The chunky little superhero increases his volume of panting to provide an audible demonstration of his speed, emphasizing it further with a declaration of “super duper fast!” And then the larger superhero scornfully observes that the tinier one could never beat a car.
On such entertaining Monday mornings, most other academic professors of clinical psychology are working on scientific papers, developing new grants, shaping the minds of young scientists, or running large funded research trials. They are doing what ambitious professionals who are highly educated and employed in prestigious and competitive environments do: honing their skills, accomplishing tasks, and making skillful contributions. My colleagues, all undoubtedly working on a Monday morning, do amazing and impactful work. They are professionals who will alter the course of mental health treatment for years to come.
I often feel that I am living a watered down version of a “successful life”, at least by many conventional standards. As a part-time clinical psychologist and faculty researcher, I take advantage of work days to allow ambitious self takes center stage. But my professional trajectory and the impact I have on the field differs from that of my colleagues’. In backing down from my professional role to be more present as a parent, I seem to have inadvertently chosen mediocrity over excellence, and a quiet background presence in place of a more prominent and influential role.
Parenting can be such fun (except when it’s an absolute drag), so hilarious (barring the moments you feel like crying), and so connecting (excluding those moments when you wish everyone would leave you alone). Despite the many challenging moments—or perhaps because of them—watching children grow up, being deeply engaged in relationships with them, and experiencing the hilarious, sweet, or even aggravating moments of parenting can be intensely rewarding. But an engaging professional life in which you give back to the greater good, and where your efforts are publicly and tangibly rewarded through title, award, and, of course, income, is also extremely gratifying. Yearning to engage in both is, dare I say, normal. But because the drives toward achievement and nurturing intrinsically tug in opposing directions, this internal conflict is unlikely to be fully resolved through political reforms, transformations in the workplace, rethinking work in general, or through renegotiating roles within marriages.
So, how can an individual sort out how to fulfill their simultaneous drive for professional success and drive to be available as a caregiver? How can they define, or even redefine, their success in the context of these two drives that seem to directly oppose one another? It seems to be a conundrum without answer. But of course, there are plenty of answers circulating about. There is the either-or approach: either delegate childcare and immerse yourself fully in professional life, or opt out of professional life to devote yourself exclusively to nurturing. And, in fact, these are the options most regularly described and for which most solutions are generated.
But alternative solutions exist, even if they are less fashionable. Here’s one: moderation. In some circles (most of them American), moderation is viewed as a dirty word, akin to mediocrity and ordinariness. The very suggestion of working towards moderation gives a sense of leaving behind our unique contributions and giving into a life of dullness. And who would choose to be mediocre and middling when you could choose to be excellent? Excellence, with its rewards of money, promotion, award, and recognition, is intoxicating. The plethora of books written by extraordinary individuals telling you how to achieve their form of excellence does not have its match in a literature written by moderately successful folks. Because let’s be honest, the stories the moderate folks have to tell are rarely the gripping stuff of more extreme living.
And yet, when you determine to have a foot firmly in professional life and a foot firmly in family life, moderation in expectations is a satisfying way to sustain both worlds. In this approach, work life and family life may not need to be viewed as being in competition for the finite resources each of us has to offer. Non-competitive models even suggest work and family are allies that can enrich each other (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006). In fact, satisfaction in each of these domains can have an additive effect on happiness, and they can also buffer one another when one role feels too trying.
But perhaps the most significant reward of being so dually invested is the opportunity to remain engaged in the two worlds that form the core of a meaningful life. Professional lives offer us a means to make contributions to the public world, to receive recognition and reward, and to find a place to direct our ambition. On the other side, caregiving offers profound meaning, deep connection, and joyful experiences with those whom we love most. There is a deep satisfaction to be had in being able to lock into each of these roles.
And perhaps we can even let go of traditional definitions of all-in success and redefine a life well-lived as one that is fulfilled by both professional meaning and personal connection.