It is an easy conversational turn to remark lightly that working life prepares you well for small children. Long hours, conflict management, multitasking, impossible demands, difficult bosses, etc. We get the point. It’s a nice line. It’s also bull. Our workplaces are far more civilized than we let on — even when your chief exec is prone to an emotional outburst. And our children, by definition, are much less so.

I was eavesdropping one morning in a coffee shop while a team of Kiwis and South Africans talked about their work. A woman said: “I just want people who are efficient. Who do what they say when they say they’ll do it. I just love that. That guy, Bill in Nairobi, you know him, he’s so efficient he doesn’t even sign off his emails. Fuck, I love that guy.”

Children are never like Bill in Nairobi.

Years of running on schedule, thinking through ideas, delivering practicalities, planning budgets, being listened to, and massaging the ego of a big-cheese boss doesn’t prepare you for the pure nihilism of life with small children.

Part of the problem is that many of us are not hugely experienced with kids.

Historically, when extended family social groups lived together and spent evenings around fires they demonstrated experienced parenting and balanced each other’s approaches. It didn’t come naturally — it was observed, copied, and improved through generations.

Single-generational modern living provides us with precious little observed experience to learn from. Not only that, but we are also so involved in getting through the working week that we’re barely even aware of our high stress levels until we see them played out. One mother I met, who worked for a local government, watched her four-year-old daughter pushing her one-year-old son in his buggy, while she walked behind on a call from work. When her young son started to fuss and cry, her daughter imitated her mother, dramatically waving her arms and “shhhhhhh shhhhhhing” aggressively before running her finger across her neck in her mother’s own “cut it out” gesture. The mother was mortified to see herself played out so accurately.

Another woman who works for a fashion brand was startled one day when a woman she’d never met asked her how her son Miles was. “Sorry, do I know you, do you know Miles?” she asked in some confusion. “Well, no,” said the woman cheerily, “but I always hear you screaming ‘MILES, MILES!! COME BACK HERE RIGHT THIS SECOND!!’ across the park.”

But it’s not just the “shushing” and suppressing of our children when they don’t fit into our working life that’s the problem. It can also be explosive rage. The emotional place that you didn’t think you’d ever get to: when otherwise stoical and unflappable adults find themselves screaming, shouting, and slamming in ways that they find appalling. A first-time dad recalls his first sight of that rage in his usually serene wife. He was helpfully doing the first wash after the baby came home from the hospital but accidentally mixed the whites and colors. His wife wanted to do things perfectly. Which didn’t include having her firstborn dressed in mucky greige. She was so upset that she picked up a discolored Babygro and yelled, “I am going to smash your fucking face in with this” to her stunned husband. He says they laughed about it later. But many, many months later.

There is something special about the speed, ferocity, and frequency of professional parent rage. Which isn’t to even hint that at-home parents don’t lose their shit now and again. They surely do and, in some ways, it isn’t so different. Yet, it’s certainly true that the workplace “task” mindset is incompatible with happy childcare and this, combined with very limited skills to manage children, is a recipe for disaster. At its simplest, it’s rooted in a fundamental disconnection from the way children think and behave, also being poor at predicting their next actions and motivators. For example, you might think, “I’m so damned late and he is trying to waste my time,” while an experienced parent or child minder, in tune with their child, thinks, “He loves to pick up small rocks and talk to them as if they were his pets, I’ll join in the chat.”


Professional parent stress is reactive, scary, and unproductive. Our stress response is often triggered by our professional approach to five factors: time, tasks, relationships, behaviors, and multitasking.

The first factor is our stress around time. This comes from our precise, professional reading of the importance of timeliness. The working parent thinks: “I am two minutes late for baby swimming and I must resolve this by rushing Felix and stripping him off with ruthless efficiency even if he screams the roof off.” This ratchets up a notch if it’s a real deadline, like the school bell. A market-researcher dad of two girls says: “That’s when the [fuse] really gets lit. When your child, through sheer stubbornness, makes others late and that lateness, from a personal perspective, is unacceptable. If you have all the time in the world, then you cajole, prod, distract, or incentivize — on a deadline, you simply force shoes on unwilling feet and drag the — sometimes kicking, but always screaming — child.”

The second factor is our approach to task management. The parent views time slots as precious and tries to get “the best” use from each segment. The parent thinks: “We have come to this museum and we have two hours here, and so Felix should use that opportunity to explore the stimulating exhibits.” Only to find that Felix would rather just run up and down the curved wheelchair ramp. Our professional eyes see a “right way” to do things and a “wrong way.” Our children don’t distinguish and simply pursue what they fancy. Experienced child minders understand that little kids will explore naturally if given enough time; harassed parents try to fight this, to the detriment of happy children and their own sense of calm.

Our professional eyes see a “right way” to do things and a “wrong way.” Our children don’t distinguish and simply pursue what they fancy.

The third factor is that we think about our relationships in a rather transactional way. In an appraisal, as a manager, for example, we may fully engage our concentration in building an understanding between ourselves and the person we are reviewing. We assume that the other adult in this scenario will respond positively to that intention and together we will use the time well. In life with children, it works very differently. The parent thinks: “I don’t see Felix enough in the week but I have taken off this afternoon to come to the museum with him. Now we need to get together and build the polystyrene bridge and have a good chat about the importance of keystones.” In our eyes, we are generously bringing the useful skill of knowing how to build a bridge to our child and they are benefiting from our total attention. But none of this works out very well when Felix decides to kick the shit out of the keystone.

The fourth challenge is that many working parents have unrealistic behavioral expectations of small kids and lack the skills to moderate those behaviors. We think something like: “Felix is now two and should not do things that are monumentally irritating all the time.” Like repeatedly asking to touch mummy’s boobies. Very loudly. Or to sing the same inane song again and again and again. On a bad day, this can feel like a relentless personal attack. We apply adult thinking and wonder why our child is being so mean. Then, we also lack the skills to distract them towards something more positive without them even noticing it has happened.

The fifth factor is that we are unable to resist applying our usual multitasking approach to work to child management. We are thinking (but not even saying): “Felix, just sit quietly and enjoy your sandwich while I try and crush a work stressball that’s just exploded in my email.” Felix feels your attention slip away from him. Distracted, he squeezes his smoothie carton down his front, drops the carrot chips into the puddle on the filthy floor, eats them anyway, and snatches some other kid’s scooter for a spin round the cafe, chased by the scooter owner and their granny, who wants you to know that she knows you are a dismal parent.

When this happens, the professional parent feels judged and gets very cross, thinking, “Oh FFS, not only is it kicking off with work but the damned child is running riot in a restaurant when I only needed, like, FIVE MINUTES to sort this out.” Poor Felix gets a stern talking to and starts to cry for his nanny/granny or other more sympathetic caretaker, compounding the chaotic failure of the special afternoon at the museum.

“As parents, we can get home from our workplaces and find ourselves ‘on task’ again and may slip into the same ‘push’ behaviors we use at work to get things done at home. We can be so focused on the ‘task’ of parenting and everything that ‘needs to be achieved’ that we may push our children away, drive our agenda over and above connecting with theirs, fail to connect, and we may end up feeling the ‘guilt, frustration, sense of failure’ emotions reported frequently. AND, our children don’t do what we want!,” explains executive parenting coach Lisa Reeves. “If we want to have connected, positive, long-term relationships with our children, we may need to examine our own behavior and make choices about what we can change… and then do it.”


From The Mother of All Jobs by Christine Armstrong, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2018 by Christine Armstrong.