Curious
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Curious

The Struggle to Keep Up: Life as a Working Parent.

Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

Firstly, this post is a massive shoutout to all single parents, parents with multiple kids, parents working multiple jobs, working in places with less-than-satisfactory employee rights, living as expats with little or no support network — and generally anyone who needs to look after a dependent while also holding down and succeeding at their job(s).

I love my daughter and I love spending time with her, but parenting is hard. When you throw work into the mix it becomes next-level hard. In today’s hustle society, being a good parent and a good professional sometimes feels like an impossible juggling act, especially if you struggle to leave work at the proverbial door. Despite being lucky to work in a country that has strong employee protection and at a company with understanding colleagues and a relatively good work-life balance, why do I still feel pressure to “keep up”? Why can’t I turn off? I am exceptionally bad at turning off.

You simply don’t have the time you had before.

Before I became a parent, in the days when my biggest first-world-problem was what Nordic Noir tv series my wife and I would binge watch next, I largely defined myself by my job. It was part of my identity. I wouldn’t hesitate to do work outside of hours. I often didn’t even see it as ‘doing work’ because I enjoyed it, because I wanted to learn and become better at what I do. Because I wanted to make progress and cause positive change in the organization. Because the kinds of issues I face are complex and carry over from day-to-day, or week-to-week with no silver bullet answer. And because I had the time to do it.

Often this ‘out-of-hours’ work was my most productive without the distractions of the office and what I learned or accomplished during this time benefited me at work.

Naturally with a small daughter I now have different priorities and that time is likewise used differently. When my wife and I finally get that hour or two of coveted personal time after my daughter has gone to sleep in the evening, it’s now spent catching up on the never-ending list of chores that couldn’t be done during the day, getting in a little bit of needed exercise, remembering what one another look like, reading (a non-work related book) to wind down, and/or getting an early night so that I can function the following day.

Even still, thoughts about work inevitably invade my mind at every opportunity. “If I just spend a little bit of time thinking about this problem, maybe I can make more progress tomorrow.” The difference is that now I’m usually just too exhausted to act on these thoughts, even if I wanted to. Being a parent means down-time is something other people have. Disconnecting from work therefore becomes a necessity, not just for family’s sake but also for mental (and physical) health.

What I am slowly starting to accept is that my pre-family life simply doesn’t exist anymore and its impossible to continue living like it does.

The hustle goes on. With or without you.

While it becomes more important and necessary to disconnect from work, I feel it also becomes harder to do so. Not just because technology has made it easier than ever to remain connected, but I still have an intrinsic desire to make an impact at work and find it hard to completely shut off after my eight hours especially when the day has been complicated. But perhaps even more conflicting, is that even if you do manage to disconnect after hours (or ignore those prying work thoughts), others likely won’t. Time doesn’t stop for you. The feeling that you need to keep up starts to play a big role in whether or not you disconnect.

Particularly among management in the tech industry, it’s not unheard of for the odd ‘casual’ meeting to happen after hours, emails, or slack messages to be sent at night or sometimes on weekends (and this is just the after-hours work you can see). During the day colleagues discuss or recommend podcasts they listened to or books they churned through during a few care-free evenings while you were cleaning crayons off your wall or googling what to do if your child’s poo is nuclear green.

Whether we like it or not, the ones who seemingly work all hours to solve the big problem at work are the ones whose efforts are recognized at the end of the day. They are the ones who went ‘above and beyond’, ‘exceeded expectations’. After all they did put in more time, literally. Even if your company clearly states that after hours work won’t be factored into performance reviews, it unfortunately can be nothing more than a token gesture. There is simply no way to know how much someone has been working overtime, nor can you stop them from doing so.

Even well-meaning words like “family first” or “just take a few days off”… tend to ring hollow. It’s nice to hear this of course and know that this is an option. But again, reality means the mere thought of taking more time away from work is usually more anxiety and stress inducing than it is relieving — it just means you’ll need to catch up even more.

It’s a tough pill to swallow but the truth is that the after-hours work others put in tends to artificially raise the bar, a bar that is simply unrealistic for many of us. It just piles on the pressure to keep up and fosters a reluctance to disconnect.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I tend to have a pretty consistent feeling of guilt; guilt for not thinking about work when I’m with family, or guilt for not being fully present with family when I think about work. It’s the seemingly impossible decision between keeping up and burning out or looking after yourself and your family but potentially becoming redundant or stagnating your career.

Many of us want to be better at our jobs. Not just to be good at what we do, but to gain experience and/or knowledge in order to be noticed. And if we’re honest with ourselves, the reason most of us want to be noticed in this way is to get a raise or get a better paying job (and of course some pats on the back for a job well done is always nice).

Standing out from the crowd is becoming ever more important in a world where it is common for hundreds of applicants to compete for the same job. Where the cost of living is steadily rising and better paying jobs more sought after. Where expectations on employee skills are growing (sometimes unrealistically) and interview processes becoming more challenging.

The unfortunate reality is that with so many trying to get ahead, to be noticed, eight hour days are getting longer, not shorter. While many companies appear to be worried about employees not working enough… I often see the exact opposite. Our “hustle” society perpetuates itself. Those who can and do work longer are the ones more likely to be elevated because they are the ones more likely and more able to devote the time needed to match the (raised) bar, in turn this incentivizes (pressures) others to work more too.

Particularly during the pandemic, it has become even more tempting to work harder and longer as working from home means it’s now much easier to become virtually invisible (pun intended). According to some surveys over the last year, because of increased family obligations, many parents feel they are letting down their colleagues, hurting their job prospects or concerned that their performance will be compared to that of their non-parent colleagues.

Conclusion

This unsustainable pace is burning out many of my non-parent friends and colleagues, but as a parent I feel acute (even if inadvertent) pressure from it. With a family to support it’s hard not to. It drives me to think about work when I probably shouldn’t, it triggers anxiety and stress, and makes me feel as if I need to choose between work or family when that’s a choice that no one should have to make.

I still enjoy my work and put in my best, but for my own sanity and for my family I try to limit this to my eight hour day. It doesn’t mean I’m not dedicated, as I have to tell myself constantly, its just a necessity to help me be more mindful of my time. It’s hard, and I fail at it most days but on the one hand while I sometimes feel like I am unable to keep up with my colleagues, on the other I’m glad I have a very good reason to do something else. Something that forces me to take a break from work in a world where, for many of us, there is no necessity to regularly turn off. Or rather, where there has become a necessity not to.

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A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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Austin Mackesy-Buckley

Austin Mackesy-Buckley

An Agile Coach and dad who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences of work and life.

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