Have you ever felt bad because you’re late picking up your kids from school or daycare because of work? Have you had to miss an important field trip or a parents’ lunch because of a meeting? Do you ever privately chastise yourself when you’re reading your kid a bedtime story, because your mind has strayed from Goodnight Moon to the deadline you have to meet for work tomorrow?
It often feels like parents are being pulled in two different directions. The cost of living in most cities today necessitates that both parents have an income. A sociological and societal shift in the 1980s saw women entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Today, over 70% of households have dual incomes. At the same time, expectations at home haven’t changed. If anything, due to the prevalence of social media, the availability of information, and the proliferation of “Mommy Blogging” culture, we are under more pressure than ever to be both the perfect parents and the perfect employees. We can and should do it all, and have it all.
Parental Shame and Guilt
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably already experienced the reality of this: Doing it all is impossible. The idea of “having it all” sets an impossibly high standard, especially for women. This doesn’t mean that we are bad parents, or bad employees. It just means that any time we experience a situation that causes conflict between our roles as parent and employee, guilt is the natural result: guilt that we are letting our families down, that our kids will resent us, that we are missing out on important events or milestones. At the same time, we work for our kids and our families. We work because we want to be good parents and good providers. Yet, work is the thing that takes us away from our kids the most.
How do we understand and cope with this balancing act? Let’s first examine the concept of parental identity threat, first introduced in the literature by Greenbaum, et. al (2022).
Parental Identity Threat
Parental identity threat exists when working parents perceive that an occurrence at work has challenged, questioned, or reduced their understanding of themselves as parents.
The authors give the example of a work colleague casually noticing that you work late hours at the office and must keep you from spending quality time at home. Put simply parental identity threat is “something that happens at work that makes you question whether or not you are a good parent.”
Of course, most people rightfully prioritize raising their children and spending quality time with them over work. Therefore, the result of parental identity threat is most often that parents will withdraw from work responsibilities and place renewed focus on parenting. However, according to the research, this doesn’t negate feelings of shame or the associated concerns that when your children look back on their childhood, they will only remember how much you worked.
Greenbaum, et al, 2022 found that when parental identity shame was present, work productivity decreased, workers were more likely to report being unhappy with their jobs, and very unhappy workers were more likely to quit. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. As boundaries between work and home blurred due to lockdowns and working from home, parents felt an ever increasing struggle to be physically and emotionally present at work and at home at the same time: A feat that before the pandemic, we would have simply characterized as completely impossible!
Calling Out Guilt and Shame
What we need to understand about parenting guilt and parental identity threat is that it is an incredibly normal, and understandable experience in today’s world of competing professional and personal demands and increased overlap between work and home environments. Greenbaum, et. al. (2022), found that parents with higher emotional stability and those who were able to acknowledge, validate, and work through parental shame and guilt were less likely to be negatively impacted by it at home or at work. Setting boundaries, keeping a regular work schedule, and mindfully making time for your family are also important practical tools for combatting parenting shame, guilt and related stress.
Bishop, K. (January 25, 2022). The parental shame that haunts working parents. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220121-the-parental-shame-that-haunts-working-parents
Greenbaum, R. L., Deng, Y., Butts, M. M., Wang, C. S., & Smith, A. N. (2022) ‘Managing my shame: Examining the effect of parental identity threat and emotional stability on work productivity and investment in parenting.’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 107 (9). pp. 1479-1497.
Counseling can help you validate and normalize your shame and guilt, challenge it, set healthy boundaries, and improve your overall mental well-being at home and at work. If you find yourself struggling with parental identity threat or other parenting issues, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.