The pitfalls of work/family blending
Looking back over the horrors of the pandemic, the one bright spot many working parents remember was the opportunity to spend more time with our children. Yes, as time went on and schools were closed (yet again), it often felt like we had too much time with our children. But there was a precious optimism that working from home was going to be the ideal solution to the working parenthood juggle going forward. As time has gone on, however, the pitfalls of work/family blending have become a lot clearer.
Working from home certainly has advantages for managing family life. Parenting and working in the same place throws up more opportunities to enjoy those precious moments that working parents too often miss out on – like school pick-ups, play dates, bath times and snuggly bedtime stories.
Having the option to work from home enables parents to mould work around childcare commitments in ways that best suit each unique family set-up. There is less energy wasted on a stressful commute and we are more able to cover unexpected circumstances like teacher strikes or medical appointments.
With more autonomy over our work patterns and locations, we should be able to attain a better work-life balance and enhanced well-being. So why are more and more parents are finding that work/family blending is actually eroding their work-life balance?
Work/family blending can lead to working more hours
Flexible working doesn’t automatically deliver better quality of life. It can easily lead to doing more not less. That same portable technology that gives us the choice to work from home also makes it easier for work to expand into family time.
For many working parents, working at home has led to an expectation of constant availability. We feel obliged to read and respond to communications, no matter what time they arrive. We check that new message on our phone even though we’re cooking dinner, or playing with our toddler or listening to our daughter’s piano practice. We pause parenting to shoot off a quick answer to an email. And if, for any reason, we cannot respond to the lure of that ping immediately, we experience an uncomfortable build-up of tension.
It’s easy to drift into a daily routine where we are always available to clients or colleagues, always checking emails, constantly being pulled in different directions and never getting a real break.
Work/family blending can increase stress
Rather than gaining extra family time by working at home, many parents find that work has expanded to fill those spaces, leaking more and more into personal time and shrinking any downtime. That all-important self-care falls off the bottom of the To Do list (again). Unless actively managed, the flexible working that is meant to give us choice and control can end up adding to our overwhelm.
Nor does that extra work time necessarily translate into better job performance. Trying to work at home with children involves a lot of interruptions and frequent task-switching tends to reduce work outputs. That reduced productivity, in turn, heaps on additional pressure to work longer hours to keep on top of things and accomplish unfinished tasks…
Work/family blending can undermine our parenting
And just because we see our children more when we work at home doesn’t mean we make better choices about how we use those parenting moments or connect more with our children. Stressed-out parents tend to overreact and snap at our children or we reach for easy solutions to keep them quiet. With so much to juggle, we can end up parenting on autopilot. We are physically there but our mind is well and truly on other things. Present, but absent.
There is also a risk that we end up over-parenting and doing too much for our children. In the UK, when schools and nurseries re-opened after the spring 2020 lockdown, educationalists observed that young children’s self-care skills had taken a step backwards. After months at home with parents, many children were less able to dress themselves independently or to use cutlery to feed themselves and some had regressed in toileting. It’s not that parents don’t want to encourage these skills, but when we are trying to get work done while looking after children at the same time, it’s often quicker and easier to step in and do things for a complaining child (wipe their bottom, put their socks on) than to cajole them into doing it themselves.
The potential benefits of work/family blending are huge – and I am certainly not arguing against flexible working or advocating a one-size-fits-all solution. There are things we can do to reduce the stress of work/family blending (such as erecting boundaries and learning to switch out of work-mode). But if we don’t take active steps to manage the pitfalls, the risk of work/family blending is that we end up overloaded by doing more for our families, more for our employers and less for ourselves.
My book The Work/Parent Switch (known as The Working Parent’s Survival Guide in the US) is a positive parenting guide specifically for working parents. It has lots more details on how to manage the working parenthood juggle in a way that is good for your children and good for your well-being.