The Guilty Working Parent
It is a rare parent who never feels any guilt in relation to their parenting or who doesn’t wonder whether they are doing the right thing for their children at times. Going to work can allow a healthy break from thinking about your children and their needs but it also invariably complicates matters too.
Most commonly guilt creeps in when we feel we are falling short of our expectations of ourselves and feel we’re not doing enough or being good enough as a parent. What we expect of ourselves can be influenced by many factors: how we were parented ourselves, the influence of the media, the myth of being able ‘to have it all’, feedback from family and friends etc.. This can be compounded when we compare ourselves or our children to other families and feel lesser by comparison.
There is plenty of advice out there about how to successfully combine work and children. However, it can feel demoralising just reading the lists of recommendations for how to have a happy family life as a working parent (e.g. spend 15 minutes quality time with each child each day, ensure weekends are work free, take time for yourself, eat meals together as a family, attend school events, be there when your child is ill and so on). Given all the expectations we feel not just from work and home but also friends, extended family and other commitments it’s no wonder we can feel like we’re falling short sometimes and that’s when the guilt kicks in.
When parents feel guilty they may try to overcompensate in other ways with their children in an attempt to rebalance the situation. For example, if you get home late from work it is tempting to keep your children up late so you can see them. Perhaps you might excuse bad behaviour because you feel somehow responsible for not being around more. Or maybe this has meant you’re more sensitive to bad behaviour and are prone to clamping down on it too quickly and too hard. If you don’t see your children for a few days due to a work trip you might buy them something special to make up for it. If you don’t see your child much during the week you may try to pack too much into the weekend to make the most of it. Or maybe you do more for them (e.g. chores) than you should for their age as you want to look after them when you are around. While these compensatory strategies might lead to you or your child feeling better in the short term they often backfire in the long run when your child’s behaviour deteriorates.
We all have different ways of managing the guilt we feel. These might range from keeping it in and worrying, ignoring it, letting it out and crying, making jokes about our parental inadequacies with friends, displacing the feelings by getting angry at our partners instead or just trying to drown it out by cracking open the wine. While these might help alleviate the feelings in the moment they don’t often help you or your children in the longer term. If you find yourself stuck in a repeating cycle of guilt, overcompensation and trying to manage your feelings then it’s an indication that things need to change.
So how can we find a more productive response to the inevitable guilt that working parents often feel?
• It is important to start by remembering that children only need ‘good enough’ parents and that there are important positives for children whose parents work. These importantly include providing children with good role models and helping children foster independence.
• Ensure you have some home routines or rituals that you always prioritise. For example, fun bath-time at the weekend or always being home for bedtime on certain days.
• Decide what your priorities will be with school. Ask each child which events they think are most important for you to attend if you can’t go to them all. Or are you and your partner each able to commit to taking your children to school one day a week?
• Make time for play and relaxation. Organised activities have their place but children need downtime and usually love it if their parents make time to be with them at home. Use open ended questions to cultivate conversation and make a conscious effort to put aside mobile phones and other gadgets so you can give your full attention.
• Teach children to problem solve rather than automatically giving them advice about what to do. When you don’t have much time it is often easier to just sort things out yourself but helping children to generate possible solutions and try them out for themselves gives children a sense of agency and control over their own lives.
Overall, it is worth remembering that while guilt doesn’t feel good it can serve an important purpose if we stop and listen to it occasionally. If you’re caught in a cycle of guilt then it’s a sure sign that something needs to change for the sake of both your children and yourself. Work plays an important role in people’s lives and it is perfectly possible to have a ‘good enough’ balance between home and work life with a few small but thoughtful adjustments here and there.