Love the Lives You're in

Working parents and the challenge of living in the happy moments

Posted Mar 07, 2016

Let’s assume you adore your kids. Not the detached kind of adore where you show off pictures at your reunion, or which finds you proclaiming them to be the sweetest of sleeping angels. I’m talking about the kind of adore that makes your heart expand with a mixture of joy and love when your child firmly maintains that his shoes are on the right feet (they aren’t). The kind of adore which downgrades your fury to mild irritation when a singsong “I’m awa-aake!” rouses you at 5:00am on a Monday morning. It’s the kind of love that makes you want to be present and engaged with your singing alarm clock.

Let’s also assume you love being a professional. Maybe you appreciate justifying your six-dollar mocha-latte-chino (you did, after all, wake up at 5:00am), and that you enjoy interacting with other professionals. Perhaps you relish the rewards of title, visibility, and yes, income. Maybe you find your work meaningful and derive a sense of satisfaction from efforts that have outcomes you can claim as your own. Quite possibly, you even enjoy having time away from the role of parent.

In sum, your parenting world and your professional world bring you deep joy and satisfaction. This notion doesn’t seem so crazy, and in fact, research from the field of positive psychology confirms that both meaningful work and deep connection to others contribute to higher levels of happiness (Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000).

But if that is the case, then why are working parents often portrayed as being so unhappy (Leonard, 2015; Miller, 2015; Sullivan, 2015). What can we be missing when they seem to have it all?

One common answer is that our societal infrastructure is too outdated and inflexible to accommodate dedication to these two important worlds. It seems clear that there is truth in this argument.

Yet, there may be more to it than infrastructure. Consider this: what if you had an at-home partner or subsidized daycare to manage all of your childcare needs? A workplace that offered you the flexibility to take sick days during flu season or to work from home when it suited your family life? Even with all of that progress, might this dilemma continue to gnaw at you?

For many, it does. You may long to be fully engaged in two worlds that tug in opposing directions. No matter which way you turn, you feel that you are missing out on experiences that matter deeply to you. Furthermore, not devoting yourself exclusively to any one world leaves you feeling that you are falling short everywhere. Ultimately, the task of living these two lives successfully can feel exhausting and overwhelming. And no external or structural change can “fix” this problem that stems from decisions guided, at least in part, by your own mind and heart.

Taking a cue from positive psychology, one approach to tackling this dilemma is to shift your focus from eliminating problems to enhancing strengths and increasing happiness. In applying this approach, you may learn to appreciate that while engagement in these two worlds can be emotionally trying and physically exhausting, lives that are filled with so many forms of meaning can be very happy, indeed (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005). It can be energizing, and even healing, to pause and enjoy the lives you are leading.

Of course, pausing to enjoy your life is no easy task for modern day working parents who are constantly juggling, switching tasks, and managing their 57-item to-do lists. The reality of a mindful pause means not getting something accomplished, whether it’s making dinner, responding to a client, or unearthing toy cars stuck between the couch cushions. And yet those mindful moments bring us the greatest joy and meaning. Though it won’t get you or your children any awards or make them the next viral video sensation, watching them spin in circles until they fall over from dizziness is guaranteed to fill your happiness cup—that is, if you can be fully present to take it in. Working hard to complete an assignment may mean missing out on an outing with your children, but you may find a deep satisfaction in doing your job well.

Pausing and engaging in the moment is not a complicated task, but it can be challenging. For at least that moment, you are letting go of what you are not doing. This can be hard for those who work so hard to have it all. But if pausing allows you to live more fully and happily, perhaps it is worthwhile to find moments to do just that.

So try it out. Take a deep breath to shift your attention from your running checklist to the experience of the present moment. Turn your mind to whatever is before you, whether it is your child, colleague, or work assignment, and take the moment in. Appreciate the experience by fully being in it and use your senses (sight, hearing, touch) to fully engage. Be willing to let go, for the moment, of thoughts of what you could or should be getting done. Notice how the experience makes you feel, and acknowledge your great fortune of engaging in a part of life that matters deeply to you. Observe any thoughts that divert your attention away from the present moment, and thank your mind for being available to keep you on track. Then turn your attention back to enjoying the special moments you live for.

Such exercises may not make it easier for you to have the elusive "all". But they will make you happier.

Luckily, that is the most excellent achievement of all.

Melle V
Source: Melle V


Leonard, K. (2015). Employees tend not to use generous benefits. US News. Retrieved from

Miller, C. C. (2015). Stressed, tired, rushed: A portrait of the modern family. New York Times. Retrieved from

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(1), 25-41. doi:10.1007/s10902-004-1278-z

Pinquart, M., & Sörensen, S. (2000). Influences of socioeconomic status, social network, and competence on subjective well-being in later life: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15(2), 187-224. doi:10.1037/0882-7974.15.2.187

Sullivan, P. (2015). Work-life balance poses challenges regardless of wealth. New York Times. Retrieved from

About the Author

Yael Schonbrun, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University.

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