Balancing Parenting and Work Stress: A Guide
As originally published in the Harvard Business Review“Ask for a flexible schedule — it’s the only way to balance work and family.”
“Think hard about part-time. You’ll end up working on your days off anyway — for less money.”
“Back in ’86, when my first daughter was born, I learned to completely check out on evenings and weekends.”
“Hire more help!”
“It only gets harder as they get older.”
Most working parents look to their networks of mentors, coworkers, and professional contacts for advice on balancing the competing demands of work and home. But the off-the-cuff guidance that most new working parents in the U.S. get, even if it’s candid and well-intentioned, isn’t always helpful. Too often it’s contradictory, vague, out of date, unactionable, even downright disheartening. With so many professional fathers and mothers depending on this common wisdom, it’s no wonder workforce opt-out rates aren’t budging and so many working parents report feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Although it’s a go-to resource, the working-parent grapevine doesn’t always provide the most useful or can-do support.
Fortunately for professional parents, and for any leader looking to assist working-parent employees in a cost-effective way, there is advice that works: simple, universally applicable, no-fail recommendations that motivate and improve performance — fast.
Over the past decade of leading human capital, diversity, and retention efforts in several demanding U.S.-based companies, I’ve spoken with hundreds of high-performing working parents, and, on the hunt for real, feasible solutions, asked the same questions again and again: What advice has been the most valuable to you over the long term as a working parent? What specific action(s) can working fathers and mothers take to meet the demands of, and be comfortable in, their dual roles? What effective tricks and techniques do you wish you had known when you became a working parent?
What I’ve heard back is unexpected, empowering advice that addresses some of the greatest working-parent problems head-on, and is universally relevant, too. It’s as applicable for fathers as for mothers, whatever the family configuration, and regardless of roles or resources. These pieces of advice have helped “move the numbers” as part of broad-scale corporate retention programs I’ve developed. They’ve worked for the individual professionals I’ve coached. They’ve been invaluable for me personally as a full-time working mother of two. And they will work for you, your people, and your organization.
Use your leading professional strengths. Whatever skills and traits have made you successful at work (Is it organization? Creativity? Resilience? The ability to assemble a team?) will help enable your success as a working parent. A strong organizer juggles the myriad demands and endless details of their dual role effectively with task lists on their phone; the creative thinker comes up with an unusual but happy child care arrangement that accommodates their frequent last-minute business travel. Think about what you do best and most naturally on the job, take confidence in that strength, and then deploy it, hard, to meet your working-parent challenges.
Have a vision of what you want working-parent life to be — and lead to. As in any business, having a defined mission and clear goals enable you to set priorities, align resources, measure success, and be confident you’re on the right path. Every working parent is different. Your vision might be to “grow this business at double digit rates while spending two hours a day with my kids” or “make partner while ensuring my children grow into healthy, self-sufficient adults” or “save enough to cover college while never missing a soccer game,” or something else entirely. But whatever it consists of, having that view gives you the feeling of being in the driver’s seat — and gives you confidence in your daily decisions.
Work differently. Invest significant time in training and mentoring a junior colleague so they can run the budget meetings without you. Make friends in the business development team so that you know about the big local client projects coming up and can volunteer for them early (no business travel!). Be as physically visible in the office as possible — taking the long way to the coffee machine — so colleagues consider you to be around and available, even when you’re at the pediatrician’s office again. Without ever compromising the quality of your work, you can get it done in a way that better fits the needs of your life outside the office.
Manage the village. If it takes a village to raise a child, your job is to build and manage that village the same way you would a project team at work. Get enough people on the team, and make sure their skills are complementary. Communicate clear priorities and ensure the team can act reliably in your absence. Give clear feedback — and demonstrate appreciation for a job well done. And put the village on speed dial: Make sure all your child’s caregivers and support are immediately and easily reached.
Don’t always be a doer. High-performing employees instinctively want to roll up their sleeves and do; they thrive on being heroes. But thriving as a working parent involves unlearning this trait — and delegating and finding shortcuts whenever possible. Look at your calendar for a few minutes each Friday, and find three meetings or tasks you could have avoided, condensed, or passed off. The new trainee could have done a first draft of the marketing summary; the groceries could have come from an Amazon standing order. Make “Friday review” a habit, and you’ll be able to shave hours off your weekly work, gaining meaningful peace of mind.
Bring workplace efficiency home. If you’re using a big whiteboard in the kitchen to keep track of your family calendar or relying on email traffic to coordinate to-do lists, you will fail, or simply become too exhausted to keep up. The same kind of technologies that enable you to compete at work — the calendars, the shared work tools — should be used at home. Downloading “life hack” apps onto your phone can help you move from “overwhelmed and exhausted” to “busy but managing.”
Have a Plan B — and don’t wait for a crisis to use it. Caregivers get sick; flights home are delayed; clients make demands for work to be completed by tomorrow. So have needed backups ready, and, more important, rehearse them. Put the number for your company’s backup child care center into your phone, and time how long it takes to drive there. Keep an overnight bag packed and waiting for when your kids suddenly need to spend the night at grandma’s. Try out the local babysitting service on a weekend, when you’re available to oversee the sitter. An effective contingency plan lets you consistently deliver at work and at home — and reduces your stress significantly.
Think long-term to stay in the game. As a longtime corporate HR professional, I’ve seen way too many parents decide to leave their jobs, or simply psychologically check out of them, during crises. The baby’s got the flu, the employee hasn’t slept in three days, and the annual department budget is due to the CFO’s office. The situation feels insurmountable and endless, and so, desperate for relief, the employee decides to make a drastic change and quits. The decision is human, and eminently understandable (what working parent hasn’t faced the same type of situation?). But resilient working parents constantly remind themselves to see through immediate rough patches, to long-term payoffs. The baby will only have the flu for a week, and you want to be in this career you love for decades. The grueling business trip ends Thursday, but your example of commitment and hard work with stick with your kids forever. You will have to be at the office late every night this week, but you are creating financial stability for your family. This “short-term/long-term” thinking allows you to weather the toughest spots on the working-parent journey, stay in the game, and maintain your motivation. Repeat to yourself: This hard part will be over soon, and my long-term payoff is coming.
To get flexibility, don’t ask — sell. Telling the boss that working from home on Wednesdays would save enough commute time that you could deliver the weekly sales reports early is more compelling than simply asking to work from home because “it’s a lot easier for me with the twins.” As any successful salesperson knows, the best pitches always lead with customer benefits.
Use the 5% solution. Don’t seek to achieve balance through drastic measures, such as changing jobs or going part-time. Instead, try getting the flexibility you need by leaving the office early once every other week, ducking out for the occasional soccer game or going straight home from any flight that lands after 2 PM. These measures sound small, and are. They won’t change your schedule more than 5%, they won’t be enough to affect performance, and your boss may not even notice. But they will provide you enough feeling of flexibility and “give” to continue on your chosen path. Small-bite, self-directed, informal flexibility works just as well, and sometimes better, than a formal arrangement.
Working parenthood is a tough managerial, leadership, and personal challenge for anyone, regardless of how gifted or hard-working they are — and it lasts for a full 18 years, or more. Like most other big business problems, it has no silver bullet, no magically permanent fix. But whether you’re a new working parent or a leader seeking to motivate and retain the working parents on your team, listening to others’ specific solutions will help to create viable ones of your own.