Working mums often ask me “What’s the ideal number of hours to work if you want to be a good parent?” It is, of course, an impossible question and – like most coaches – I usually counter it with a question of my own (such as “How do you feel about the number of hours you work at the moment?” or “How would you define a good parent?“). The truth is that there is very little hard evidence with which to tackle that question objectively.
There’s definitely research that demonstrates that working mums are good for their children in certain regards (particularly daughters and particularly where lack of money would otherwise tip the family into poverty). Comparisons between the children of working mums and stay at home mums show no consistent evidence that one is better for children than the other overall – though there is emerging evidence that part-time working mums can bestow some benefits above either of the full time extremes. But, of course, all of these studies look at slightly different things and none can fully take into account all the other varied elements that influence a child’s outcomes.
In my fifteen years of parenting, I have experienced a lot of different work-family constellations, some by choice and some forced upon me. I’ve tried (in no particular order):
- heading back to work almost as soon as the baby was born (expressing breast milk in the toilets)
- being the main breadwinner while dad stayed at home
- being a stay at home mum with two small children (lurching from one toddler group to another)
- cramming a full time job into a four-day week (minus the pay for that fifth day, of course)
- being a single working mum reliant on a live-in au pair to keep everything together (or not, depending on the au pair)
- being part of a high-flying couple who both had big jobs, big workloads and pay packets that were spent on ensuring other people kept everything ticking along at home
- running my own business based on part-time flexible working hours
Each of these lifestyles had stresses. Some of them worked well for a time, while others were always difficult. But what I learned is that it is not the exact number of hours you do or don’t work that makes the difference, it is how you manage the associated stress.
Work can contribute both positively and negatively to stress. It can be a source of support and self-esteem and an anchor into the adult world which provides much-needed perspective and connectedness for working mums. But work can also create pressure to succeed and build stress which negatively affects our levels of energy, patience, empathy and consistency – elements that we desperately need in order to provide calm, nurturing parenting. Of the times when I have been my most distraught and tetchy as a parent, one was when I wasn’t working at all (being a stay at home mum with a baby and a toddler left me exhausted and frazzled and sometimes unable to face the day!) and one was when I was working part time (in a child protection role where I never quite succeeded in letting go of the fear and responsibility of the day job).
So, rather than focusing on the number of hours worked (or not) as a defining factor in work-life balance, shifting our perspective towards how we process and manage stress successfully opens up a different way of thinking. And when it comes to working mums’ stress, there is clear evidence of what works:
Looking after yourself
Parenting is much easier when your own needs are being met – physical and emotional. Have a healthy lifestyle and set time aside for spending with your partner and your friends and pursuing interests and hobbies. It makes you a better parent.
Having realistic expectations (of yourself and your children)
Children misbehave. They make mistakes. And none of them are good at everything. Learning to overcome setbacks and obstacles is an essential ingredient in becoming a resilient adult. Having impossibly high standards will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy. So be realistic and prioritise ruthlessly.
Positive parenting strategies
Set a few simple ground rules (e.g. “be gentle”). Praise, reward and encourage the behaviour you want to see. And follow through with fair, consistent consequences when you have to. Sometimes, being a parent involves dealing with our own difficult feelings but having a simple realistic plan makes things much easier when the going gets tough. (See The secret of calm parenting)
Good transition routines between work and home
Find a way to step between your different roles in a way that sheds the stress of work and frees you to be a calm, nurturing parent. Whatever works for you – changing clothes, deep breathing, aerobics, or an episode of ‘Just a Minute’ on the train home – find a way to ease work stress before you step through the front door for the evening shift.
Regular problem-solving sessions
Hitting your head against a brick wall will always give you a bruise and never move the wall. If something isn’t working, do some problem-solving. Sit down with your partner, or have a family meeting with the kids, to work out exactly what the problem is and come up with some new ideas. (See How my preschoolers designed a stress-free morning routine)
A family-friendly employer
Not always easy to find but, if you can, look for a job where working mums are acknowledged and supported. Check out this list of family-friendly employers for ideas. If you think your current employer could improve their policies or you want to know more about your rights as a working parent, head to the Working Families website.
And don’t forget, life moves on. What works for you and your family will change over time!
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