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Could we make being a working parent easier — by reframing how we think about it?

7 min

Perhaps this has happened to you: Your important project is due today, with a presentation at noon. Your child, however, feels horrible and, of course, their covid test is positive. Do you assume the day is unsalvageable — both for your child and your job? Or do you look at the day in a new light and consider how to make it all work?

If you identify with the former, you are thinking in a fixed mind-set, where you feel a day’s fate is unchangeable and there is nothing you can do to make it better. If you tend more toward the latter, you are using a growth mind-set and believe that you can get somewhere better based on effort and looking at the day differently.

Many parents have heard of mind-sets and recognize how important they are when it comes to children and their learning. But as psychology research has shown, we adults have mind-sets about pretty much every domain of life—even about the effect our work role has on our parenting.

Parents can feel utterly trapped when work and life face off, as they so often do. But reframing this familiar struggle as a challenge we can rise to meet — and which we might even benefit from — can be life changing. That doesn’t mean we must work harder or sleep less to fit it all in. Instead, a growth mind-set is a way to approach our struggles so we can arrive at a better place than where we began.

When it comes to the way of thinking that helps you tolerate and even thrive in challenging situations, research reliably reveals the positive impact of a growth mind-set. In working parenthood, such a mind-set means being flexible, assertive, resilient, and discerning in the face of work-family conflict. This way of thinking helps you embrace the conflict between parenting and working and could turn that conflict into a positive benefit.

As one study following new parents in low-wage jobs found, believing that your work can be good both for you and your children is more likely to make it so. Latina moms were more likely, on average, to believe that working would harm their child than African American moms were, and this difference in beliefs predicted higher levels of depressive symptoms over the first year of parenthood among Latina moms. Maureen Perry-Jenkins, the study lead investigator, a psychology professor and the author of “Work Matters: How Parents’ Jobs Shape Children’s Well-Being,” explained that a mind-set that work causes irreparable damage to your kids can “get embedded in the psyche. And then moms are incredibly anxious and depressed about that and, of course, that plays into their interactions with their babies.”

Of course, believing work can be good for your parenting does not mean you can “mind-set” your way out of conflict or horrible circumstances. A shift from a fixed to growth mind-set around working parenthood won’t guarantee humane treatment. And it won’t eliminate conflict since being actively involved in both work and parenting is bound to bring about interference between the two.

But, as management professor and “Work and Family—Allies or Enemies?” author Jeffrey Greenhaus says, a better goal than eliminating work-family conflict might be to have the “positive experiences of participating in different roles outweigh the negative.” This is where a growth mind-set about the impact of your work on your parenting can help, and here are some steps to foster it.

Start with a mind-set shift

“We underestimate the power of mind-sets,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology professor and the author of “Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad).” “Not only do they shape our thoughts, they shape our choices. They shape how we understand our life. They even shape our biology.”

A growth mind-set about the relationship between work and parenting not only helps us connect to the hope and motivation to build a world with fewer intractable challenges and more support for working parents, it also helps us deal with the challenges no system can undo. After all, what working parent can avoid that kids get sick at the most inopportune of times? It’s helpful to stay open to the various ways we can play whatever hand of cards we’ve been dealt.

Befriend conflict

Unbridled optimism is not necessary or even desirable in adopting a growth mind-set. As Debbie Sorensen, clinical psychologist and author of both “ACT Daily Journal and a forthcoming book on work burnout, explained, rather than looking at the conflict between your parenting and work roles “as a sign that something is wrong with us, we can accept this struggle as an inherent part of living an engaged, fulfilling life.”

A working-parent version of a growth mind-set acknowledges that work impinges on time to be with your kids and that we are grumpier and more tired than we would like to be when we are with them. And it can, at the same time, help us see the ways that our unavailability helps our children develop greater self-competence and an awareness of how grown-ups juggle demanding roles and grumpy moods.

We can go further in befriending conflict by absorbing lessons from individuals who have endured unthinkable trauma. Edith Eger, an Auschwitz survivor and clinical psychologist, describes in her recent book, “The Gift: 14 Lessons to Save Your Life,” how a growth mind-set helped her endure the brutally inhumane conditions of Nazi-era concentration camps. She writes: “I can’t say that everything happens for a reason, that there’s a purpose in injustice or suffering. But I can say that pain, hardship, and suffering are the gift that helps us grow and learn and become who we are meant to be.”

Savor enrichment

A working-parent growth mind-set makes it easier to transcend daily challenges. It also helps us notice and enjoy gifts we might otherwise overlook. We can also accept that there may be conflict between our roles as parent and employee that we can’t escape.

And it helps us see how we can, even in the face of conflict, enjoy the many ways that participating in multiple demanding life roles enriches our lives.

Exercises from the therapy room help us connect to these gifts. Sorensen suggested practicing perspective-taking by “tuning in to the big-picture values that are truly most important to you. Remind yourself to focus on what matters most to you, and see if you can let go of the rest.” Then, she advised, practice being deliberate about enjoying the positive feelings that come from being engaged in roles that you care about, like the snuggles you enjoy with your little ones and the pride you feel in being able to financially support your family through your work. You might even enjoy how having multiple roles forces time away from each, boosts your creativity and keeps life interesting.

By shifting into a growth mind-set about working parenthood, we can both befriend the conflict and foster the gifts. We can admit that the balance of our roles is exhausting and stressful, and that it can also be enormously enriching.

As we continue to push for a world that is more supportive to working parents, we can hold fast to the belief that growth is always possible, even on the toughest of working parent days.

Yael Schonbrun is an assistant professor at Brown University, co-host of the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast, and author of the book, Work, Parent, Thrive: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much).

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