Back-to-school time is a time of transition. Schedules shift, kids are returning to classrooms, and as a working parent, you may be pivoting from more caregiving to more professional time. How can you navigate that shift effectively, with grace and compassion?
Transitions are one of the five “core challenges” of working parenthood, according to Daisy Dowling, author of Workparent. Dowling’s solution to the problem is to rehearse. This sort of practice, several days before an expected big transition occurs, helps parents identify potential snags ahead of time and brainstorm ways to fix them. It can be as simple as play-acting the first day of school with your children. By rehearsing the change to come, you and your child can feel prepared for a new routine, which can affect everyone’s attitudes and mindsets.
Reflecting and Setting Intentions for Your Family and Job
The transition to a new season and school year provides a ripe opportunity to set your intentions for the school year. With the fresh start autumn provides, you might consider pausing to look at the big picture. You can begin by reflecting on your life goals and all the things that are—and aren’t—working.
As you reflect on your career and family, you might ask yourself:
How satisfying is my current life?
Are my values reflected in the life I’m leading?
What are my priorities right now, in this phase of parenting and at this phase of my career?
What do I want to hold on to?
What do I need to let go of to make life easier?
What do I need to ask for at work and at home to make my goals achievable?
In which direction do I wish to go?
Caring for Yourself as a Parent and Professional
You might find it hard to make time for that kind of deep reflection. After all, life is so busy right now. Although the knee-jerk reaction to this hectic stage of life might be to just slug through it, reflection and self-care are arguably even more essential for mental health clinicians who are parents than it might be for parents in other professions—particularly non-caregiving occupations.
At heart, behavioral and mental health professionals and parents have similar mandates: they support and encourage others’ unique growth and development. When you’re both a therapist and a parent, there are special challenges to integrating work and parenthood. “Work-life balance” may not speak accurately to the conflicts that arise between your professional and personal choices, as both roles require you to draw from the same well of compassion. A better description might be the one put forth by therapist Robin B. Thomas, Ph.D.: existing in a “constant state of adaptation to meet the many demands of family, career, and social obligations.”
In order to flow within that “constant state of adaptation,” you need to put your (figurative) oxygen mask on first. It’s worth repeating: self-care is vital, particularly for parents who are therapists. Left unaddressed, burnout and compassion fatigue can amount to a personal and professional crisis. The antidote is self-care.
Regard self-care like you would any other appointment on your calendar: your needs are equally important to others’. While it may seem like you’re taking time away from other obligations to focus on yourself, what you’re actually doing is enabling yourself to care for others well while modeling healthy behavior for your children. This article contains specific advice on self-care techniques for handling therapists’—and arguably parents’—occupational hazard of secondary stress.
Strategies for Navigating Your Career and Family Demands
While challenges such as secondary stress may be unique to parent-therapists, there are some more-universal methods for working parents seeking to flex and adapt to the dual demands of both roles.
1. Make value-driven choices. Reflection on your own unique life has to be the first step. Once you decide what you value, you can arrange everything accordingly. Maybe at this stage of life you value convenience over wealth, so you buy precut vegetables to save minutes in the kitchen. Getting clear on your values can guide decisions both big and small to ensure they’re consistent with the life you seek to lead—and that’s a natural recipe for satisfaction. See the reflection questions above as a starting place.
2. Change your strategies as needed. What works when your baby’s in diapers is not necessarily going to work when they’re a teenager. Your need may be the same (e.g., focused work time), but your strategy for meeting that need (e.g., childcare you pay for) can change. But your needs can change, too—especially if your values have changed! As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to reevaluate your values, needs, and strategies every two years as you and your family grow and evolve.
If you find you’re in need of new solutions, take note of other working parents’ strategies. What seems to work and what doesn’t? What do you like and not like? Can you imagine that method working for your family? It’s fine to experiment with changes in your own life to find what works for you. Strategies are not set in stone. By employing flexible thinking, we can accommodate new needs. And remember, reducing your commitments is a legitimate strategy, too. Do you want to reduce your contribution to your field at certain stages of your child’s life? Dowling calls this “auditing your commitments.” Which leads us to setting boundaries.
3. Set boundaries. This is work; this is home. With clearly delineated boundaries between what’s personal and what’s professional, you are in a position to push back on overwork culture and increase your happiness. In practice, boundaries look like not answering work communication after hours, for instance. Not only does this sort of boundary setting establish guardrails for yourself and contribute to life satisfaction, it also helps head off a whole host of secondary problems that thrive in the neglectful shade of burnout culture, according to Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist who has written two popular books on the difficulty of maintaining work-life balance. “Turns out,” she writes, “it’s incredibly hard to build community, to forge social safety-nets, to agitate for larger social change, [and even to] give and receive care when you’re dedicated, willingly or not, to the culture of overwork.”
4. Establish an egalitarian home if you have a partner. This can be one of the most important factors for partnered parents thriving at work and at home, according to Danna Greenberg, author of Maternal Optimism. Consider how well your current home management routines and organizational systems (shared calendars, to-do lists, digital versus paper, etc.) are working as well as who is carrying the mental load.
Embrace flexible gender roles to balance work and family and contribute to your happiness, advises Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift. There’s that flexible mindset again!
5. Lean on the village. It takes a village to raise a child—even more so if you are a single parent. Outsource help where your budget allows: dog-walking, housework, cooking, even lice combing are all subject to outsourcing. If your budget is tight, you might find creative solutions for childcare, such as forming a cooperative for daycare. By leaning on your friends and extended family, you strengthen social ties and develop community. It requires time and planning to ask for their help, but the benefits are tenfold.
A professional peer group is also crucial for social support. Mother-therapist Maggie Benedict-Montgomery, Ph.D. speaks of the need to find “allies” within your professional network. These professional peers can assist you in navigating your specific field as a parent, and might have experience in areas that are new to you. It’s good to know that others have your back—and that you can have their backs, as well—and that you are not alone in navigating these challenges. Which finally leads us to:
6. Speak up. You know that trying to navigating parenting and your career isn’t just your private, personal struggle when you Google “parenthood and career” and the first options that come up are survival guides! Fifty million Americans are surviving as both parents and professionals, but they aren’t necessarily thriving. Our workplace policies could do more to curb overwork culture and help working parents and families thrive. For example, only one out of ten American men have access to paid paternity leave, according to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Statistics such as these showcase how important it is to advocate for social change. We can all do our part to advocate for family-friendly workplace policies. In fact, activism can make you a happier parent, because volunteering and advocacy offer considerable mental and physical health benefits. When industries and institutions in the United States become more supportive of parents in the workforce, we all benefit.
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