The Working Parent and Too Much Choice
How working parents can learn to navigate a world with too many choices.
Posted Feb 12, 2017
The classic working parent’s quandary: realization hits late. You have an important work meeting the following afternoon…and your kid’s fall play. Torn up, you fantasize declaring that you can’t make either engagement. Maybe you’ll head to Target to peruse the latest seasonal décor instead. But with maturity—and awareness that you’d probably get caught ogling a tufted pillow—you quickly put that thought away.
Back to your reality. For working parents blessed to have a choice to make, the pressure to decide whether to prioritize one role over another is perpetual. With job flexibility, there is that theoretical possibility of being able to be present for any given work and kid event; and pressure to be there for all of them. But making a choice to attend one particular event means that you cannot be physically present for the other.
Unlike professionals who (by choice or circumstance) have little flexibility in their workdays or stay-at-home parents (whose main time demands are already kid activities), parents with flexible professional lives are constantly faced with the choice of where to direct their resources. And while more choice seems like an obvious good—and a right for which we have long fought and continue to fight for—the stress, exhaustion, and self-doubt that sets in for individuals juggling roles in both of these worlds is unavoidable.
As Sigmund Freud noted, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Yet keeping a foot in both worlds comes with some important challenges. For one, trying to cover all bases without cloning yourself is a near impossibility. And it turns out that having multiple roles doesn’t give you a pass on performance in any of them. Instead, having so many roles in which you are able to make choices creates a pressure to be more excellent. Laboratory research backs up the idea that more choice leads to our own insatiable expectations. In one set of studies, consumers who were given more items to choose from were less likely to be satisfied with their pick than those given fewer choices. In a second study, students writing an essay wrote more skillfully when they were given fewer topics to select from. In other words, individuals are more satisfied when they have fewer choices and perform better with fewer options in hand.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice that as “the experience of choice and control gets broader and deeper, expectations about choice and control may rise to match that experience.” Taking part in multiple roles increases the number of choices we make daily. With flexibility built into your day, you may be compelled to make decisions about where to direct your resources on a seemingly moment-to-moment basis. The privilege of being able to make these choices then increases expectations of satisfying ends. But as our expectations rise, so does the likelihood of our disappointment.
But hold on: We cannot conclude that we were better off when women’s choices were restrained to the domestic sphere. Nor should we conclude that the only viable choice is to outsource parenting if you are a professional. Instead, it is incumbent upon us to develop ways to make the freedom to juggle multiple roles saner and more satisfying.
Adjust Your Expectations: Schwartz says “we probably can do more to affect the quality of our lives by controlling our expectations than we can by doing virtually anything else.” By adjusting our expectations of what “having it all” will look like, we can increase our chances to feel a sense of satisfaction as we navigate our choice-filled days.
Set Concrete Goals: Adjusting expectations begins with carefully setting our goals. Intentionally laying out goals can help anchor choices we make in a way that shooting for a lofty and abstract goal of “having it all” or “being excellent” cannot. For example, you can set a goal of making sure to hit four out of five meetings, or attempt to attend three school events per year. Building in the expectation that you will miss some meetings and events can allow you to take it in stride instead of concluding that you’ve committed a parent- or work-fail when the inevitable happens.
Let Go of Social Comparisons: Sure, there will always be someone who looks to have his or her act together more than you do (thanks Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter for the constant reminders). But by keeping your pre-selected goals handy, you can hone in on choices directed by your own goals rather than getting caught up in a moving target that shifts as soon as you close in on it.
Welcome Opportunity Costs: No matter what you choose to do, you are choosing not to do something else; no matter where you are, there is someplace important that you are not. So while having kids and a job means you have it all in the grander sense, any given moment will require you to pick one role or activity. If you can position yourself—physically, cognitively, and emotionally—to let go of where you are not, then both your satisfaction and performance wherever you have chosen to be will improve.
To be sure, being a working parent with job flexibility means learning to live with a constant pressure to make choices. It also means having your finite resources divided into many demanding worlds. Learning to see that balance with appreciation of its gifts and acceptance of its limitations can help you navigate life more effectively. And by increasing our skill in how we make choices, those of us who “have it all” can more satisfyingly and happily enjoy the all that we have.
Iyengar, S.S. & Lepper M.R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.