It's like a skyscraper with multiple stories, one for each iteration along the way that's specially designed for working parents. A few common "stops" on the way up are guilt over taking time off from work, guilt about reserving time to work, and guilt over using the most powerful word in business--that is, "No."
And then there's the penthouse of guilt: working parents who are guilted into feeling bad for not spending enough time with our kids.
The irony I've noticed, as I've paid closer attention to this particular style of guilt these past few weeks, is that working parents ourselves aren't the ones who feel guilty most often. Rather, there's a bigger, more generalized cultural pressure that's perpetuating the ideas that have, historically, tried to hem in professional ambition and hinder a quicker evolution of traditional roles.
Here are two examples my husband (also a working parent) and I experienced recently.
- We were traveling internationally for work, him in Munich and me in Bordeaux. It doesn't happen often that we are both away but when it does, we have a tight group of caregivers who step in to look after our 13-year-old twin boys. One day we all dropped the ball on an after-school activity that was important to one of the boys. No excuses; it was a mistake. Did we feel bad about it? Absolutely. But did we feel guilty? Absolutely not. That's a significant difference, between feeling bad about a mistake and feeling guilty about it.
We aren't alone in the group that leans toward feeling bad instead of feeling guilty. Yet guilt infiltrates working parent dynamics nonetheless, as this second example illustrates.
2. We were having drinks with new friends, who are also both working parents. My husband and I had just returned from a trekking trip to Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of Chile, which raised funds for cancer clinics in developing areas. "Was it just the two of you?" Our new friend asked. When we said yes, she immediately asked the follow up question of, "How do your kids feel about your abandoning them so often?"
Do we feel like we abandon our kids? No. More to the point, do our kids feel like we abandon them? We asked them, and they said something that sounded a lot like, "Of course not. Duh." While we were at it, we asked if they're ever angry about our being away sometimes for work. "No," they said. "Why would we be angry about you having something to do?"
It's a good question, and one I'll remember the next time the guilt topic comes up. That, along with mounting research that indicates how important attitude is when we spend time with our kids, moreso than the quantity of hours we spend with them.
Here are three other steps working parents can take toward a win-win in work-life balance.
Prepare across the board.
Advance preparation is key. At home, try sharing a digital calendar that each family member consults and updates frequently, so there are very few surprises about who's expected to be somewhere and when. At work, try getting into the practice of delegating critical tasks for short periods of time so that your absence for a longer period of time (a family vacation, say) is manageable and rehearsed.
Maximize evening hours.
I've written before about making the most of your evenings, and that often includes time with family. Reframe those hours by fine tuning "down time." A highly recommended adjustment? Sit with kids over dinner, away from any screens, and talk altogether. It has the double benefit of calming the nervous systems of everyone involved, plus you're giving each other the psychological boost of undivided attention.
Lighten up. Crack jokes. Better yet, laugh at their jokes. Follow their lead. Play. They're the world experts at it, after all. Tear up the schedule.
You might recognize this behavior as the opposite of today's helicopter style parenting. That's exactly the idea. If you need formal affirmation of the benefits of grounding the helicopter once and for all, consider this research indicating the dangers of raising kids who are "too safe to succeed."