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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Jan 2019

The guilt of a working parent

Does any of this feel familiar?

When I’m at work, I feel guilty that I’m not with my kids. When I’m with my kids, I’m thinking about the work I should be getting done. Then I feel guilty that I’m not being really present with my kids. I feel guilty asking for favours, which I have to do if the kids aren’t going to get left at the school gate. I’m tired a lot, and then I can feel guilty that I’m not being a very attentive partner. Between me and my partner there is an unspoken system of ‘guilt credits’ which sees us silently assessing which of us most deserves some ‘me time’.  If ‘me time’ ever happens it is laced with guilt and often cut short.

I’d like to thank a coaching client of mine for sharing his experiences from a recent meeting of working parents in his organisation and for rich conversations about his own experiences as a working Dad. I have a handful of clients at the moment with young kids. Some have sick kids, some have kids with special educational or health needs, some have kids who aren’t sleeping through the night or are going through a tough time at school. Some of my clients have partners at home in charge of childcare, some are going it alone, some are in a partnership where both parents work.

Sometimes the most stressful periods of our lives with our families also happen to coincide with big promotions or tough leadership challenges such as the sale or takeover of a business. The pressure on working parents can be immense. And although I’m not in this place now, it feels familiar from when my kids were younger.

I want to use this post to talk about the nature of guilt and what we can do about it. Yesterday, I heard someone say that guilt was a useless emotion. But one could argue that guilt is one of the most useful emotions we have. Guilt helps societies and families run cooperatively. Guilt is the pang we get that lets us know our duty to our tribe. Unlike shame which is turned against oneself, guilt is focused outwards on what we need to do for others. It kicks in, according to my desk research, between the ages of 3 and 5 when we shift from a crazy, playful, wonderfully unfettered selfishness to an awareness that we are part of a group. It is a time when we learn to inhibit or adjust ourselves to take care of others or to avoid negative social consequences.

Guilt is not a pleasant emotion. For me, it feels like it resides in my chest. It’s tight, it’s fearful and it’s sad. It’s hard to sit with. However, it’s often relatively easy to relieve with a social act. If I feel guilty that I haven’t been a great daughter recently, I give my mum a call. If I feel guilty for snapping at my husband, I apologise. The trouble is that when an intense period of parenting combines with an intense period of work, there is just not enough of me to go around. I cannot be all things to all people. I simply cannot live up to the high standards of social, professional and family responsibility that got me the great job I’m in, the partner I’m with and the children we share.

Is there any escaping the guilt of a working parent? I don’t have all the answers but here’s some of my experience:

1 A realistic check on working patterns

Some working parents find that they do need to tweak their working pattern – even if it’s just for a phase. Perhaps one partner will work part-time for a while, or the travel requirements of a job need rethinking. I find some clients make assumptions about what will and won’t be possible in this regard before they actually stop to think what they need. Sit back, be honest about what you need, then think about how you might make it happen and how you might approach the people you need to ask.

2 New ways of working

It may be that your career success to date has been based on you putting in huge amounts of hours and being all over the detail. This is not sustainable with kids. The good news is that it’s also part of your leadership development to learn to delegate, prioritise and operate at the right level. For many leaders, having kids is a hugely useful leadership development intervention – better than any training programme. A working parent must learn to let go and come out of the weeds. They also learn a huge dose of perspective on what’s important. Both of these things are vital in leadership roles.

3 Accepting ‘good enough’

The phrase ‘good enough mother’ was coined by Donald Winnicot in 1953 and, of course, applies to fathers too. It is specifically about balancing the instinct to meet all of your child’s needs immediately and personally (in the way that you do when they are a tiny baby), with the need for a child to learn that the world does not always conform to their wishes. Letting your child experience some frustration and independence, appropriate to their age, is part of their development.  In more general terms being a ‘good enough parent’ is about recognising that there is not an ideal way to parent; that missing some school events is not the end of the world; that a bit of iPad time while you have a nap is not going to kill them; that as long as you love your kids, meet their needs within reason and do them no harm, there are myriad ways to be a family.

4 Beware the critics

Everyone has a view on parenting. Social media, although offering great supportive communities for parents, can also offer a shed-load of judgement and reasons to feel bad. Be careful what you read. Grandparents can also be openly or quietly judgemental about your parenting. Just remind yourself that they brought up their children in a different age with different pressures and different cultural norms. And although they can be a source of advice and support, they didn’t get everything right either. A wise friend of mine told me – ‘you can only parent as Lucy, you can’t parent as anyone else. And Lucy will be plenty good enough’. I found that very settling.

5 Grade your guilts

Not all guilts are the same. Try grading your guilts from 1-5 where lower scores are guilts that don’t need acting upon, whereas an out-and-out 5 needs addressing. This is all about the trade-offs. Eradicating guilts is impossible, so attend to the high grade guilts and don’t sweat the small stuff. The guilt that you haven’t looked at your email for half an hour might score low, as might the guilt of not baking cakes for the school sale or the guilt of paying a cleaner to come to your home. Higher score guilts, I would argue, should be about the quality of time you spend with the people you want to spend it with.

6 Get all the support you possibly can

Working parents need support.  Childminders, cleaners, maternity nurses, sleep-trainers, babysitters, dog-walkers, willing grandparents, friends who will share school pick-ups. If part of your guilt complex is about not asking for help, it’s time to try something new – get support! If it helps, you can tell yourself it’s not forever. Do what you need to do to keep sane for this phase of your family life.  No one benefits if parents go under. And if you need to buy support – just do it! Spend less on ‘things’ and as much as you possibly can on support. It’s the best money you will ever spend.

7 Get into a conversation with your guilt

The guilt of a working parent can feel like it’s taking you over. But it is only one part of you. Perhaps you could give the part of you that generates guilt a name, a face, a character. I call mine Gloria. Gloria is thoughtful and smiley and she never spends all day in her pyjamas with dirty hair! She is the part of me that wants to be the perfect mum, wife, professional, daughter. She is well-meaning and sometimes she is right. She wants me to have a positive impact on those around me. But she’s not in charge. I can decide which of her guilt trips I choose to go on and which I don’t. And I can choose to call on other parts of me – the part that needs support, the part that asks for help, the part that is self-accepting, the part that can smile at the inevitable mess and imperfection of family life.

P.S. I’ve had some wonderful responses to this post. Thank you. It seems it’s a huge relief to acknowledge and talk about guilt with other working parents. So, do! Talk about it at work. If you are a leader who cares about family, run a group for working parents. You’ll be doing something there’s a massive need for. And, I’ll wager, you’ll be simultaneously boosting engagement and talent retention.

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