Four Conversations Every Overwhelmed Working Parent Should Have

by Joseph Grenny and Brittney Maxfield

Quick Takes

  • Ask yourself who you are and what you want
  • Talk about your career and family commitments with your boss and colleagues
  • Define common goals for your children with your spouse or partner
  • Open up to your kids about the pressures you feel and what you want

Working parents sometimes struggle with the feeling that they are either letting down their family or not meeting their career goals. It can be hard to strike the right balance. As with most of the challenges we face at work, having an open and honest conversation is one of the first steps toward finding a solution. If you’re able to talk about the issue, you can often resolve it, or at least come to a compromise.

One of us, Brittney, became a mom eight years ago and went through this experience of renegotiating boundaries in an intentional way. The other, Joseph, saw how Brittney’s skill in doing this not only made Brittney happier but also changed our whole company culture to be more supportive of working parents.

If you are a parent looking to establish and sustain a healthier balance—for yourself, your children, and even your organization—there are four specific types of conversations we recommend having.

A Conversation with Yourself

The first ongoing conversation you need to have is with yourself. You must clarify who you are and what you want before you can confidently negotiate your boundaries. If you fail to hold this initial conversation, emotion can override reason, and it’s easy to get caught up in an unwinnable game of pleasing someone else rather than choosing what is right for you. Having this conversation with yourself first will make all the other conversations less stressful.

A Conversation with Your Boss and Colleagues

View this as an ongoing tactical conversation in which you negotiate the specifics of your schedule and workload.

Sit down with your boss and teammates and let them know of your passion for your career and your work-related goals, and then unapologetically share how your family commitments relate to these priorities. For example, you might say, “I want to manage large projects. I’m at my best when I’m getting important things done. I’m willing to sprint for short periods of time to ensure that everything works, but these sprints will have to be occasional. I also intend to be a consistent presence in my children’s lives.” Having laid out these principles frankly, check to see if your colleagues are expressing mild disappointment, support, or simply concession. If they buy in grudgingly, you should expect worse when your boundaries cost them in specific ways.

It’s possible that your teammates won’t support the life you are committed to creating for yourself. But remember—even if this conversation goes poorly, you haven’t failed. Knowing where everybody stands will provide you with the information you need to make the best choice about how to move forward with your career. You might determine that leaving the organization and finding a more supportive company is the best way for you to reach your goals and avoid the alternative: a slow, inexorable path to separation.

When Brittney returned to work, she was initially nervous about asking her manager for more flexibility and a slightly reduced schedule, which she felt she needed in order to have more time at home. Ultimately, their conversation was successful because she strongly believed that a more flexible schedule would allow her to better meet her obligations at home and at the office.

A Conversation with Your Partner or Spouse

Speak honestly with your partner or spouse about your common goals for your children. If, for example, you both agree that it’s essential for at least one parent to be present at important events in your child’s life, then find ways to tag-team these commitments. You may be willing to speak to your boss about your work-life balance goals, but if your partner isn’t willing to do the same, it will be challenging to meet the goals you set and the two of you may fall into mutual resentment. Encourage your partner to hold these difficult conversations at their workplace so that together you can accomplish your goals.

When Brittney adjusted her work schedule, her self-employed husband made similar sacrifices. Though he was working tirelessly to get a business off the ground, he reduced his schedule to spend time with their son while Brittney was at the office—and vice versa. This teamwork approach helped them manage their time in ways that aligned with their goals.

A Conversation with Your Child(ren)

When your children are old enough to understand, talk frankly with them about the pressures you feel and what you truly want. However, be careful to avoid playing the role of the victim. Blaming your organization for your lack of flexibility or stress at home doesn’t solve problems; it creates unfair and false resentments. The last thing you want to do is teach your children to despise the idea of work. Instead, model by example.

Acknowledge all the commitments you’ve willingly made both at work and at home. Help your children understand the time you spend away from them isn’t just that—time away. It’s something you value that also contributes to a happier life at home for the whole family. Talk to your kids about your passion for your work, the skills you’ve developed to excel at your position, and how it brings you joy. Explain how much you want to put them first and that when you can’t, it’s hard on you, too. Don’t brush off difficult feelings. Own the sadness you might feel when you can’t be there. Feeling sad together actually creates connection. If your child sees that it’s hard for you, they can better understand that your occasional absence is no reflection of your love for them.

When Brittney was required to travel for her job, she never pretended that she was being forced to leave by a sinister boss, even if that would’ve been an easier message to deliver to her kids. She told her boys she would miss them but that, right now, she had to fulfill other important responsibilities. Now that her children are older, she talks honestly with them about schedules and priorities. In these ongoing conversations, she explains that even when Mom and Dad are busy with work, the family’s needs are always the top priority.

There’s no denying these four conversations are challenging to have and may not always go as well as you planned, depending on your circumstances and the expectations of your boss, coworkers, and partner. Having them also doesn’t guarantee that your career won’t be at all affected, especially if you’re a woman. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where too many women experience a motherhood penalty of reduced opportunity and compensation in their careers. Having the four conversations does not guarantee inoculation against these workplace inequities, but it does guarantee the possibility of achieving the change you want to see in your life. If you never have the conversation, you fail before you try.

Balance is a never-ending pursuit that requires constant awareness and communication—but with skill and purpose, it can be done. And as a parent, what better motivation to establish and sustain a healthy work-life balance than our children?

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, August 8, 2018 (product #H04GAT).

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