A few years ago I upgraded to a brand new washing machine. Sadly, my appliance joy was cut short when the machine broke after just a few weeks. It took four scheduled repair visits, several parts that didn’t do the trick, and about a month of hitting the Laundromat before the real problem was identified: a faulty computer that had repeatedly misled the repairmen. A valuable lesson was reinforced: Until you can make an accurate diagnosis, there is no way to implement an effective repair.
It isn’t just home appliances, of course. Accurate diagnoses are critical for a wide range of problems including those that plague us on a cultural level. One such problem is work-family conflict. Bright minds and leading voices from various spheres including public policy, business, and working parents in the trenches have focused on how to repair this problem that afflicts so many. Decades into this effort, though, parents still strain to sustain their professional lives and professionals continue to agonize over how to be present enough as parents.
Certainly some of the conflict remains because the “fixes” generated by leading voices are expensive, as well as politically, practically, and philosophically difficult to implement. Yet another key reason we haven’t eradicated this problem is that we have—by virtue of our exclusive focus on the external and structural entities—misdiagnosed the problem. The modern conversation about work and family focuses entirely on external and structural solutions because we assume that the problem, itself, is wholly external and structural. Yet it is clear to most ambitious professionals who are also loving parents that a part of the dilemma exists at an internal and psychological level.
In circumstances where we are able to strip away the commonly identified ills (such as insufficient funds, inflexible workplaces, unsupportive colleagues, or unequal marriages), privileged working parents often discover that a conflict still remains. It turns out that it isn’t simply a question of finding ways to pass off childcare or of making it easier for ambitious professionals to meet the expectations of their jobs. Because even with the option to delegate childcare to a responsible and loving caregiver that isn’t you, you may discover that you have a hankering to yourself be intensely engaged in the parenting of your children1.
On the other side, a powerful draw to parenthood might justify leaving behind an ambitious professional life, or at the very least dialing it way down. But leaving or cutting back on professional life isn’t the obvious answer, either. Even in imperfect professional circumstances, there is a lot to be said for having a professional life. Income in return for work, a sense of identity that comes from your efforts and your skillset, the ability to make a difference in the larger world that exists outside of your private home are just a few of the fulfilling rewards of working2, not to mention the joys of a regular break from childrearing.
It’s no surprise that even the most ambitious of professionals long to engage deeply in parenting and that loving parents yearn to fulfill their ambitions outside of the home.
But though we may experience that internal conflict in our minds and hearts, it remains easier to focus on the external and structural problems (and the parallel external and structural solutions). As anyone familiar with internal conflict knows, it is far easier to point to speck of sawdust in someone else's eye than it is to pay attention to the plank in our own3. In other words, the problems that exist outside of us are easier to identify and work on than the ones that exist internally. Yet if we do have a plank in our own eye (or heart), our effectiveness in dealing with it will be limited until we make the correct diagnosis.
To effectively manage work-family conflict, we need to start looking at the psychology of this problem. As Freud noted so many years ago, “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” It is wonderfully human to simultaneously long to succeed in the public sphere and engage deeply in relationships with those we love. And no amount of maternity leave, supportive partnerships, or flex-time can eliminate the conflict that exists in embodying these dual and sometimes dueling drives.
The starting point for resolving this conflict must come with accepting the piece of this conflict that exists at the psychological and spiritual level. Only then can working parents find strategies that help them effectively manage this conflict.
1. Weissbourd R, Jones S, Anderson TR, Kahn J, Russell M. The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values. Harvard Graduate School of Education: Harvard University;2014.
2. Greenhaus JH, Powell GN. When work and family are allies: A theory of work-family enrichment. The Academy of Management Review. 2006;31(1):72-92.