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The "Simultaneous Shift" Is Running Working Parents Ragged

As even the most resilient are struggling. Here's one worry we can let go of.

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash
Work in the time of COVID-19
Source: Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

“It was rough,” he told me when I asked about his day. My husband, an ER doctor on the frontlines of COVID-19, explained: “There’s just no controlling the situation. It’s non-stop.” Looking at his weary eyes, it was clear to me he had been through the wringer. But here’s the thing. My husband wasn’t in the ER that day. Rather, he was at home on the frontlines of child-rearing our two young kids, while simultaneously trying to complete other work.

Our matching his and her dark, under-eye circles reflected our shared experience of trying to do well by our children, trying to do well by the people we serve at work, and trying to do well by each other but without our typical resources (such as childcare).

The parents are not okay

Amongst parents and caregivers today (I use the term parents throughout, but am really speaking about “caregivers” as families come in many forms and often the primary caregiver(s) are not parents), the cries for help are loud and clear. “I am really starting to wonder how anyone could think this is sustainable,” wrote Farhad Manjoo in his popular New York Times Op-Ed “Two Parents. Two Kids. Two Jobs. No Child Care.

The consistent message I hear from working parents is this: I am trying so hard to care for my kids and to do a decent enough job at work, and I feel like I am failing at both. And, often, as soon as the recognition of how hard this is bubbling up, so do the secondary feelings of frustration or even shame for having these negative feelings at all.

“But at least I have [fill in the blank with a job, food, a partner, a safe home, etc],” we tell ourselves. Perhaps we go further asking ourselves, “What’s wrong with me? I should just feel grateful.” And while gratitude is good, when it’s used in an attempt to convince ourselves we should be okay when the reality of the moment is that we’re not, it ceases to be helpful to anyone.

We can’t “gratitude away” our woes

Indeed, it’s important and beneficial to recognize and count our blessings. A living income, safe shelter, and food, for example, are necessities that far too many go without, especially now as unemployment skyrockets. Our brains are more likely to notice the negative, so intentionally focusing on the positive brings balance. It’s no surprise that appreciating the good in our lives correlates with and engenders psychological wellbeing.

If we could absolve our stress with gratitude, I’d be all for it. But countless studies support the reality that trying to push away our negative feelings takes a toll on our emotional and physical health. An alternative approach is noticing, without judgment, the actual state of affairs – internally and externally.

Awareness opens us up to experience the full range of emotions within, pleasant and unpleasant. It’s not either-or, it’s yes, and. We can feel endlessly grateful for our health, for the many frontline workers keeping society safe and fed (nurses, doctors, social workers, food service workers, delivery professionals, and so many more), for our children who we love dearly AND feel frustrated, fatigued, and scared.

From the second shift to the simultaneous shift

Here’s a glimmer of the current reality (in which working parents are showing resilience, and also consistently struggling). Being a working parent was already hard. Parents (especially women) end their workday and immediately begin their second shift–a term coined in 1989 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild–of caretaking, dinner-making, laundry, bedtime, etc. Since Hochschild first identified the phenomenon, the day is now more likely to also include a third shift of logging back onto work at night.

In the midst of the pandemic working parents have moved from the second shift to what I’ve been referring to as the simultaneous shift. Those of us fortunate enough to be employed and working from home are trying to accomplish two or three jobs at the same time. Between the hours of 9 and 5, scratch that, in whatever new schedule we have, we are simultaneously employees, contractors, parents, homeschool teachers, chefs, cleaners, referees, etc, all at the same time. This is multi-tasking on steroids.

Our brains on multi-tasking

We are not wired for multi-tasking. The problem isn’t simply that, without school and childcare, we have less time for each life domain. It’s also that our human brains are markedly less effective amidst frequent context switching. Based on his studies on task switching, research psychologist David Meyer found that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”

For working parents, this is not just “working from home.” It’s akin to going directly from a marathon to a series of sprints, each one based on different rules. But also, as we are running these sprints, we better make sure the kids are safe and doing their school work.

The suffering we can let go of

We don’t know exactly when the widespread simultaneous shift will end. But we don’t need tea leaves to know that the challenges of working and parenting through a pandemic will continue for longer than we wish.

So what can we do in the meantime? I’d happily share a list of tools and techniques, but your time is limited and precious. So here’s just one nugget of tried and true wisdom from the couch: While we can’t easily change the reality, perhaps we can let go of some of the judgment we’re placing on ourselves for the challenges we’re having.

Earlier I spoke about the common pattern in which parents will speak of the difficult feelings bubbling up (frustration, sadness, guilt, grief), but then immediately judge or shame themselves for having a hard time at all because what they really should be feeling is grateful.

This voice of judgment is what many refer to as our inner critic. It’s the same voice that berates us for a simple mistake, saying things to us that if someone else said, we’d never speak to them again. If this doesn’t resonate with you, if you are consistently kind to yourself, fantastic! Keep it up! If you’re like me, and the rest of us, read on.

When we notice that judgment in the days to come, perhaps we can also invite in two of the most critical elements of self-compassion, as identified by researcher and professor Kristen Neff: 1) Self-kindness, and 2) Common humanity.

  1. Self-kindness: Most of the time we are our own harshest critics. Kristen Neff recommends counteracting this by treating yourself as you would treat a good friend. If treating yourself as you would a good friend feels out of reach, lower the bar. For instance, try treating yourself with at least as much care as someone who is really good with vehicles would treat a favorite car. When a car that we love is not operating properly, we don’t say “stupid car,” as we try to make it work even harder and go even further. We instead try to figure out what the issue is, then do what is needed to be done so that the car can keep going for many years to come. If repairs are delayed, this might mean reducing expectations or lightening the load as much as we can.
  2. Common humanity: Neff writes, “Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if ‘I’ were the only person suffering or making mistakes.” To put it layman’s term, common humanity is the recognition that, “really, it’s not just me.” Our experience is well within the realm of the human condition.

Truly addressing the stressors families face today requires large-scale action from institutions (e.g. paid family leave) and patience (one day, this will end). But in the meantime, can we as individuals do our micro-part of alleviating parental and caregiver stress by letting go of the extra doses of self-judgment we place on ourselves? In place of the mental load of self-judgment, can we offer ourselves care and kindness? And can we really let it in that it’s not just us? The already delicate balance of our lives got scrambled up and it’s no wonder that even the most resilient among us are struggling. If there was ever a time for compassion outward, and inward, this is it.

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