On his second day of camp drop-off, Ali’s 6-year-old balked. He clung to her leg and asked if she had to work today. Did he need to be there the whole day? Couldn’t she come early to get him? He didn’t know anyone at camp and he wasn’t having fun. He teared up as he grasped for a way out of camp. Ali hugged him and said that she knew he could do it and that she would be there early if she could get out of work in time. He watched her go with a trembling lip. She glanced back as she left the drop off area and noticed how much smaller he looked than the other campers.
Cue the internal battle: Ali’s mind started grinding on her options. Maybe she should call in sick to work, bring him home, and let him try again tomorrow. Except important clients were in town today and she needed to be in the office for several meetings. Maybe she could stack most of her work obligations in the early part of the day and pick him up at lunchtime so that his misery wouldn’t extend for a full camp day. But would that teach him that she didn’t think he could do it? Maybe the best choice was to make him stay the full day, let him know she had faith in his abilities, and support the development of his confidence in himself to handle challenges. She could take care of her client meetings and really focus on her little guy in the evening. Or was that cruel? Probably not, she reassured herself. But that trembling lip...
The work-family conflict plays out—in some form or another—on a daily basis for most working parents. Since most American parents work (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014, 2015), that includes a whole lot of us. The pervasive conflict around roles that matter to our identity and our way of life invariably leads us to investigate solution strategies. An immense amount of thinking, writing, policy work, workplace debates, and marital negotiations go into attempts to resolve this dilemma and make it a less prominent feature in our lives.
But it might be helpful to pause our fixing efforts and examine another side to the work-family conflict puzzle. In fact, work-family conflict has an attractive sister who mostly gets overlooked. Psychologists—not known for their branding savvy—have cleverly named her work-family enrichment (Zhou & Buehler, 2016). Work-family enrichment is defined as the extent to which experiences in either work or family improve quality of life in the other. You can thank your irritating and emotionally immature boss for helping to hone your skills in negotiating with your 2-year-old. And you can thank your two-year-old for providing greater meaning to your work, be it your pride in affording to buy her new kicks or a realization that your work for the greater good includes her good.
Researchers have even demonstrated that work-family conflict and work-family enrichment aren’t simply two sides of the same coin—they are separate and unique phenomena (Zhou & Buehler, 2016). Meaning, you can experience the dilemma of work life bumping into parenting life even as you find your work life enriching your parenting life. Because even as we feel conflicted over work and parenting choices, we can observe that these difficult choices frequently benefit both domains.
Even though our personal experiences and our public conversations on the relationship between work and family life focus most heavily on the conflict, researchers have found specific support for the ways in which work and family life enrich each other. Enrichment effects may come from having a sense of achievement and personal fulfillment. We have more opportunities to feel appreciation, respect, autonomy, and a sense of competence when we are engaged in both work and family life. And the constant demands of these two worlds can help us to clarify values and goals in how we engage in either role (Jacob, 2008; Voydanoff, 2004).
As one example, Ali’s conundrum of how to parent well is a part of our ongoing cultural conflict over defining ‘good parenting’. Good parenting can mean making your children happy in the moment by alleviating their distress and contributing to their pleasure. But good parenting can also be defined as working to support your children’s success by teaching them skills and nurturing their talents (or hiring someone else with kid-friendlier skills and talents to do so). And then there is the definition that suggests that good parenting involves instilling values and helping your children to develop character. While a broader ideal involves a mix of all of these approaches, any given circumstance requires prioritizing one.
For working parents who leave their children in the care of others for a significant percent of the workweek, the dilemma of which parenting approach to pick is intense, and the conflict is confusing. How do we engage in ‘good parenting’ when there is inevitable conflict between our role as parent and worker? But enrichment may be found in the very conflict that exists between these two roles. In fact, the impossibility of giving into children’s desires for distress alleviation or pleasure granting can urge us to help children build skills and confidence and character—even when it makes us feel guilty. This is not to say that stay-at-home parents don’t also make these choices; of course they do. But the conflict between work and family roles provides unique opportunities to work towards value driven choices.
Working parents encounter struggles, and they are real and painful. Even so, it is useful to give greater attention to some of the ways in which enrichment can be found, even in the face of work-family conflict. Rather than focusing exclusively on the conflict, we might work towards acknowledging and appreciating the ways in which these two worlds also enrich each other. We might welcome the ways in which our roles as workers allow us to parent more effectively, and the ways in which our parenting allows us to get the most out of our work lives.
As Ali later described to me, when she finished her workday it wasn’t as early as she had hoped. She just made it to pick-up at the close of the day’s activities. She rushed into the gym worried about her son, and anxious to see how he was faring. He was engaged in a game of tag when she arrived, but ran over for a hug when he caught sight of her. He told her that he had made two new friends and excitedly showed her a ziplock bag containing his first lost tooth. He was beaming with pride.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). Economics News Release [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.t02.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Employment Characteristics of Families-2014 [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/famee.pdf
Jacob, J. (2008). Work, family, and individual factors associated with mothers attaining their preferred work situations. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 36(3), 208-228. doi:10.1177/1077727X07312820
Voydanoff, P. (2004). The effects of work demands and resources on work-to-family conflict and facilitation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(2), 398-412. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2004.00028.x
Zhou, N., & Buehler, C. (2016). Family, employment, and individual resource-based antecedents of maternal work–family enrichment from infancy through middle childhood. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(3), 309-321. doi:10.1037/ocp0000016