Parenting and working are similar activities. You invest effort and the results come later. Like parents, higher education professionals help young people transition into successful adults.
Some psychologists have argued that “parenting” shouldn’t be a verb or a type of work. But yet, it’s difficult for higher education professionals to believe this when their responsibilities as parents occupy the same space on personal ledgers of time, energy, and attention. When planning their careers, they often feel forced to sequence or choose between child-rearing and tenure-pursuing.
There’s also a perceived conflict with efficacy. Many people believe work makes you a bad parent and parenting makes you a bad worker.
Should working parents even be thinking of this conflict as something to negotiate? This is not to say higher education professionals shouldn’t bargain with their partners and employers for better, more equitable allocations of their roles as parents and professionals.
New parents should be entitled to more paid parental leave, tenure clock stoppages, or modified duties. Without them, working parents often choose their career over starting a family. But those are external circumstances. Internal conflict can be managed or eliminated by reframing your mindset.
You might agree that “parent” is better as a noun and being a parent is unlike the burdens of work. It’s not a means to an end. But if you’re a working parent who is trying to balance these two buckets, perhaps you should try shouldering them on the same yoke.
Psychologist Yael Schonbrun freely used the verb “parenting” in her excellent book “Work, Parent, Thrive,” and she suggested that parenting and working roles are complementary to one another instead of competing.
“Harmony relies on tension,” Schonbrun wrote. “Making space for opposing forces like those of conflict and enrichment helps you manage that tension more skillfully.”
Schonbrun offered working parents the following three pathways to enrichment. Despite being a new father who works on a college campus, I asked for input on each pathway from my colleague Brittany Fleming, a communication professor at Slippery Rock University, for faculty perspective from a new mother.
As you regularly step away from each role, you are being pressed to develop resources, skills, perspectives, or knowledge in a different area of life. Apply them to the opposing roles.
For higher education professionals, that could mean better empathy, patience and communication with students, or using orderly work processes at home, such as organizing a nursery like a laboratory.
“I feel like I’ve become a better professor since becoming a mom,” Fleming said. “I’m not old enough to have children who are in college, but I care about my students like they’re my kids, especially the students who I advise. Many of my existing skills have transitioned into being a mom, and what I’ve learned in the last six months about being a mom has been transitioned into my role as a professor.”
Having multiple roles doesn’t have to spread you thin and create burnout. It prevents you from investing too much of your self-worth in one area of your life. And it could give you a needed boost. A stressful day at the office when you feel inadequate will be interrupted as you step into a role nurturing your child.
“If I have a stressful day at work, I just need to snuggle my baby and that makes everything better,” Fleming said. “When I see her, it’s impossible to think about anything related to work.”
On the other hand, you might feel helpless as you fail to soothe a screaming baby, but later feel competent by nailing a presentation at work, or at least find comfort in the folkways of a work environment.
“Sometimes you just need to wear work clothes and talk to other adults,” Fleming said.
According to Schonbrun, the clinical term for this buffering effect is “psychological detachment.” Switching off from a role can have a restorative effect for when people return to their roles more focused, productive, and able to get along with others and solve problems.
More roles mean more meaning. Sure, everyone has their limits of time in a day or how many roles they can take on. But research cited in Schonbrun’s book confirmed a cumulative effect on people’s well-being.
Could a professor like Fleming be a better teacher if she didn’t focus on service and scholarship, let alone if she never became a parent? Perhaps. (The transfer and buffering effects would say otherwise.) But people have different roles because it makes life meaningful. Even professionals who specialize in one discipline have outside hobbies, interests, or roles in their communities.
Fleming has many roles in addition to professor and parent. She is the adviser of two student organizations, the student newspaper and television stations, and she serves on her university’s commission for women and a social justice committee.
“If you’re even thinking about (the possibility that you are) doing worse in one category or the other, you’re probably still doing a good job because you care,” Fleming said. “I may be super busy, and I still need time for self-care, but I do what I do because it brings meaning. I love my job. I help students gain confidence and reach their full potential, and knowing that I’m working to make a difference in other people’s lives is so rewarding.”
Parenting can change what you value in your life and your career. And being a parent doesn’t have to be in direct conflict with working. If it does, use that tension to enrich each role, not diminish them.
“Becoming a parent often adds an entirely new element of our personhood,” Schonbrun wrote. “We might become more attentive to relationships, teaching, manners, values, spirituality, meaning-making, or earning a reliable income. And based on our children’s needs or interests, we might expand our own passions.”
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