“The Second Shift”: How to Survive as a Working Parent

In 2018, over 80 percent of families with children had at least one employed parent and almost 50 percent of families had both parents in the workforce. Working parents may experience challenges balancing the responsibilities of both career and family. In 1989, Arlie Hochschild coined the term  the “second shift” to describe the unpaid work that mothers and fathers face after they leave the office or job site. This article will discuss how to manage working while raising a family and answer some of your top questions about being a working parent. While this article is geared toward mothers, the same principles also apply for working fathers. 

Why do some mothers choose to work?

Several decades ago the traditional family involved a father in the workforce and a mother at home. The image of what makes up a typical family has shifted dramatically since that time. Today a family may consist of a single-parent household, two mothers, two fathers, or a mother and father with one or more parents in the workforce. As gender roles have evolved and become more flexible, some mothers have chosen to enter the workforce. Women may decide to both work and parent for a number of different reasons:

  • Women may need to contribute to the household financially. This may be voluntary or necessary depending upon a family’s particular needs.
  • Women may derive satisfaction from work and career. Women may feel committed to continuing to advance careers that they have invested years pursuing. 
  • Parents may experience pressure from themselves and others to work. For example, women may believe that they could miss out on career opportunities if they take an extended maternity leave. Pressure can also come from friends, family, and employers, who may directly or indirectly communicate their expectations.

Mothers can choose to return to work by choice or out of necessity. Whether a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mother or to work outside of the home, both women are trying to do the best for their families. 

The number of mothers in the workforce has increased significantly over the past several decades.

Is it harmful to my children if I work?

Whether or not working is harmful to children has been a topic of much debate. Research on working families has revealed that having both parents in the workforce can have positive effects on children:

  • Children of working parents may feel proud of their parent’s career accomplishments. Working parents can be positive role models for their children. 
  • Girls of working mothers may feel empowered to set their own career goals. One recent study conducted across several countries found that girls whose mothers work outside of the home are more likely to work as adults, hold supervisory positions, and earn higher incomes.
  • Parents who work do tend to spend less time with their children, but working parents can make up for this with better quality time. For example, they may make an effort to be present and engaged with their children during their time at home. 
  • Children of working parents may benefit from developing social connections in daycare and afterschool programs.
  • Families with two incomes may also feel more comfortable financially, which can reduce stress on the family as a whole. 

There is no evidence to suggest that having a working mother is harmful for children. What is more important is how the family feels about a mother working and copes with the challenges. Finding good quality child care is also important for helping children adapt to having working parents. Children who are loved and cared for by their parents and caretakers are more likely to develop into healthy, well-adjusted people, regardless of whether their mothers work. 

How can children cope with having a working parent?

  • Encourage your children to talk to you about how they’re feeling about your work. If your child expresses anger or sadness, be receptive to how they feel. It may be difficult to hear your child tell you that your work impacts them, but listening non-defensively to their feelings shows them that you care.
  • Develop “work-day rituals.” For example, agree to talk or video chat on the phone with them at a certain time each day or have a family breakfast each morning before work. This shows children that you value your time with them.
  • Make coming home a big deal. Welcome your children with open arms, a big hug and kiss, and a warm hello. This communicates that you have missed them too and bridges the gap between where work ends and home begins. There’s no need to buy them a gift each time you come home, since what they are really seeking is your affection. If you do want to buy them a gift, save it for special occasions, like after a business trip. 
“Quality over quantity” time can help children cope with a working parent.

How can I be present with my children when I’m home?

You can make the time you have with your children really count by making an effort to be more present with them. Think “quality time” over quantity. Consider the following:

  • Create a ritual to help you separate work from home. It can be difficult to leave your thoughts and feelings about work at the office or job site and enter the home environment with a clean slate. This can be especially challenging if you work from home. While it is nearly impossible to completely rid yourself of all thoughts and feelings about work, creating some time and space in-between work and home can help you recenter. For example, you can use your commute home to practice mindfulness to help you let go of what happened earlier in the day. 
  • Put away electronic devices, like phones and ipads, while you’re parenting. If you do have to respond to a message or email, keep it brief. If your child asks, let him or her know that you need to respond to something for a moment, but will return your attention shortly. 
  • Make household chores a family affair. Chores are an inevitable evil while maintaining a household, but they don’t necessarily have to mean less time with your children. If your children are of an appropriate age, get them involved in helping you keep up with chores, such as cleaning up dinner on the weeknights after work. Explain to them that if everyone pitches in to help, there will be more time for a bedtime story or other family activities. 

How can I avoid burnout as a working parent?

Burnout happens when a person is overwhelmed and overworked, which leads to feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. People who take on too many responsibilities with little time for self-care are at risk for burnout. As a working parent, you can reduce the likelihood of burnout by:

  • Squeezing “moments of mindfulness” into your work day. Try to find a few minutes during your lunch, coffee break, or commute (if you take public transportation and are not focused on driving) to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Tune into the in-flow and out-flow of your breathe. Giving yourself even 5 to 10 minutes in your day to focus and be present can help you recharge. 
  • Avoiding too much on your plate. Working parents can feel overwhelmed balancing responsibilities at home and work, but not every task is a high priority. Sometimes it’s better to let certain tasks wait until a later time if it means relaxing for a few minutes, spending time with your children, or doing something else that is more important. 
  • Delegating what you can. Decrease the number of responsibilities on your plate by getting help with cleaning, cooking, laundry, and/or grocery shopping if possible. 

Being a working parent has its benefits and challenges. Some parents may choose to work, while other moms and dads may have to for financial reasons. Either way, being a working parent is hard. Try your best to balance your children, job, and your own self-care, but go easy on yourself on days when you just can’t keep up.

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Economic news release: Employment characteristics of families summary

Hochschild, A. R., & Machung, A. (2015). The second shift: Working families and the revolution at home. New York: Penguin Books.

Hsin, A., & Felfe, C. (2014). When does time matter? Maternal employment, children’s time with parents, and child developmentDemography51(5), 1867-1894.

McGinn, K. L., Ruiz Castro, M., & Lingo, E. L. (2019). Learning from mum: Cross-national evidence linking maternal employment and adult children’s outcomesWork, Employment and Society33(3), 374-400.

Poduval, J., & Poduval, M. (2009). Working mothers: How much working, how much mothers, and where is the womanhood?Mens Sana Monographs7(1), 63–79. 

Shelov, S. P., Altmann, T. R., Hannemann, R. E., & Trubo, R. (2014). Caring for your baby and young child: Birth to age 5. New York, NY: Bantam Books. 

Working parents may have a difficult time balancing their two roles.

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