A three part series from Pandemic Pods, Workplace Flexibility, Co-Parenting Gameplans, Pandemic Anxiety to Worldwide Teddy Bear Hunt. Michelle Travis, award winning author, law professor, and expert on work/family integration, offers help for parents to cope and find hope in this original series for The Child Therapy List.
Part 3: Work/Family Integration & Covid-19: Silver Linings
I’ve been studying work/family issues as a researcher for two decades—and I’ve been living work/family issues as a mom of two teen daughters for nearly as long. When I first started my research many years ago, I used the phrase “work/family balance” to describe my endeavor. I’ll admit that the phrase always left me feeling frustrated. But it took me awhile to figure out exactly why.
Parenting in a pandemic has crystalized for me why I no longer think about “work/family balance,” but instead focus on “work/family integration.” Our quest is not to achieve perfect equipoise between our work and family roles and responsibilities—a quest that we’re doomed to fail. Our journey is about finding ways to weave together all of the aspects of our lives to allow both ourselves and our children to grow and thrive. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from our pandemic parenting experience.
1. “Balance” Sets Us Up For Failure
The term “work/family balance” conjures the image of a scale, with work on one side and family on the other. The problem with that image is that it suggests that we achieve success only when the scale is in perfect equilibrium. As parents (particularly in a pandemic), we know that’s virtually never the case. There are days when we feel we’ve neglected our kids to meet a work deadline; and there are days when we feel we’ve failed to impress at work because we’ve prioritized a homeschool lesson. But the sum of each of those individual days of imperfect balance can indeed be work/family success—and we need to reframe our goals to recognize that.
2. Balance Implies Only Direct Tradeoffs
The concept of a work/family “scale” is also problematic because it only allows us to think in terms of direct trade-offs: more work time means less family time, and vice versa. It doesn’t allow us to imagine the possibility of synergies between work and family. It ignores that when we feel satisfied in our careers, we can be more engaged parents. It ignores that the empathy we learn as parents can make us better leaders at work. And it ignores the times when the conflicts actually pay dividends—like when one of my husband’s work colleagues needed a new babysitter, and we wanted to find a first job to get our teenage daughter some experience.
3. Balance Ignores our Lived Experience
Most importantly, work/family integration better captures our daily lived experiences than “balance.” As much as we might strive for compartmentalization—and as much our bosses might hope for it—the work and family aspects of our lives are truly intertwined. Parenting during a pandemic has definitely highlighted that reality. But at the same time that our daily work/family integration can feel overwhelming, it’s also offering some silver linings for working parents—and for our kids—in the future.
Work/Family Silver Linings
1. Increase in Workplace Flexibility
One of the long-term benefits that we can capture from our Covid-19 experience is greater workplace flexibility in the future. By necessity, many employers were forced to experiment with work-from-home arrangements—which many working parents have been seeking for years. Employers have discovered that remote working is actually quite successful: employees are just as productive, and concerns over supervision and teamwork challenges have been thoroughly debunked. What’s more, employers have discovered that remote working saves money with less overhead costs and reduced needs for expensive office space. This has made many employers far more committed to workplace flexibility even when the pandemic is behind us.
Of course, remote working hasn’t felt like a step forward for many working parents right now, because it’s come hand-in-hand with the shut-down of schools, the loss of babysitters and other paid caregivers, and the disappearance of after-school activities, sports practices, and summer camps. But once those aspects of our children’s lives are back up-and-running, we’ll be able to reap the benefits of workplace flexibility that we’ve been seeking: including less commute time, and more ability to fit our work around our children’s needs and school hours.
2. Increase in Engaged Fatherhood and Co-Equal Parenting
The new work/family integration brought on by working and schooling from our homes has also brought many families closer to co-equal parenting goals. Many fathers are taking on more childcare and household responsibilities, and they’re feeling positive about the results. The majority of fathers report that since the start of the pandemic, they feel closer to their children, are appreciating their children more, are more attentive to their children’s feelings, and are having more meaningful conversations with their kids.
This has lead to more meaningful discussions between parents about co-parenting gameplans. Parents are having more regular conversations with one another about sharing the childcare, schooling, and household workload, which benefits everyone in the family—parents and kids alike. It also has the potential to advance gender equity at work, as more men seek long-term workplace flexibility as well.
3. Increased Conversations about Childcare and Paid Parental Leave
In addition to increasing valuable conversations within families, the pandemic experience has also increased national conversations about the need to invest in childcare and paid parental leave. The crushing impact that Covid-19 and our childcare crisis has had on working moms in particular—as well as on parents laboring in essential jobs—has renewed serious calls for policy reform. It’s time to translate the painful lessons from the pandemic into a meaningful investment into our child care and early education infrastructure and our family leave policies, which would go a long way to supporting the long-term well-being of children, parents, and our economy.
4. Increased Conversations about Children’s and Parents’ Mental Health
The pandemic’s unique form of work/family integration has also increased important conversations about both parents’ and children’s mental health. This has been an incredibly stressful time for families—a time of worry, isolation, over work, and unknown. The CDC has actually issued guidance and resources for dealing with the stresses associated with Covid-19. But the silver lining is that we’ve actually been talking about these affects, which hopefully will open up pathways to long-term attention on self-care and mental wellbeing for us all.
Michelle Travis is a Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she studies work/family integration. She is the author of the award-winning children’s picture book, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which celebrates working moms. She has also written Dads For Daughters, a guidebook for male allyship to support gender equity.