Working Parents Pulled in 2 Directions. What Does This Mean for Cos.?
For working parents, every day presents itself with new challenges, causing an array of complicated emotions.
Research from Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, finds that “working parents are vulnerable to fears that they aren’t focusing enough on child-rearing. While that may not be a surprising finding to most working parents, the research goes on to show that these worries can trigger feelings of shame that lead to reduced productivity at work.”
The focus of the research is called parental-identity threat, which they have defined the term as “the sense that your role as a parent has been challenged by career demands.”
Cynthia Wang tells Kellogg Insight, “As an example, sometimes I teach in the evenings and have to miss special events. In these types of situations, my identity as a parent is, unfortunately, being threatened because of what’s been happening at work.” The threat can be triggered in many ways: by a schedule conflict, a comment from a colleague, or the realization that you’ve forgotten something important on the home front.
Wang understands that this experience promotes shame for parents.
“Parents are always questioning whether they’re being a good parent, and there’s so much societal pressure about the ‘right’ way to parent. All these pressures put so much burden on us that shame becomes a prevalent emotion,” she shares.
Cynthia Wang along with her coauthors—Rebecca Greenbaum, Yingli Deng,Marcus Butts, and Alexis Washington have discovered that these feelings of shame have the ability to cause parents to spend more quality time with their children. The team also learned that not all parents feel shame when they observe that they’ve fallen short as parents.
Understanding Working Parents’ Shame
These researchers decided to direct their focus on people’s identity as parents as opposed to their identity as an employee.
The researchers first wanted to better understand the nature of the threat that parents feel when their work-life disrupts their home life. Who is the most impacted? How does it make them feel? And does it affect their productivity at work?
To begin their research, the researchers began by recruiting 201 working parents to complete an online survey before their workday began. These participants first answered questions designed to evaluate emotional stability by rating how much they displayed traits like moodiness and jealousy.
After the survey, these same participants were divided into two groups: those in the high-parental-identity-threat group (read fake research had shown working parents aren’t as involved with or close to their children as nonworking parents) and those in the low-parental-identity-threat group (read another fictitious piece of research that said that working parents are just as involved with and close to their children as non-working parents.) Next, they rated how strongly they agreed with statements designed to assess their levels of parental-identity threat, such as “My role as a parent was looked at in a negative way.”
“We make up for the shame that we’re feeling by spending more quality time with our kids.”
— Cynthia Wang tells Kellogg Insight
After the business day ended, “all participants reported their shame, rating how much they felt ashamed, humiliated, and embarrassed at that moment. They also rated how productive they had been at work that day,” Kellogg Insight shared.
The research shows that the participants who read about the hazards of being a working parent reported more identity threats than those who did not. The parents in the high-parental-identity-threat group reported higher levels of shame and lower levels of work productivity.
But, as Kellogg Insight reports, there was an interesting catch: for participants with high emotional stability, experiencing parental-identity threat did not lead them to feel shame, and their work productivity was unharmed.
When Parental Identity Is Threatened, Moms and Dads Double Down
The researchers also were curious about how the parental-identity threat would affect parental involvement. Would feeling criticized actually shame parents into spending extra time with their kids?
To answer this crucial question, they recruited 259 sets of spouses who were both working parents, with one partner serving as the main participant and the other offering an outside perspective.
To begin, the main participants rated their levels of parental-identity threat, shame, and workplace productivity over the past week, as well as their overall emotional stability. For a more objective outside view, spouses rated how often in the previous week the main participants had spent quality time with their children.
The results of the second study replicated what the researchers saw in the first: parental-identity threat triggers feelings of shame.
However, experiencing shame had a potential upside. Kellogg Insight notes that the researchers learned: participants who felt more shame from parental-identity threats also invested more energy into parenting.
“We make up for the shame that we’re feeling by spending more quality time with our kids,” Wang explains.
A Real-Time View of Working-Parent Guilt
In the most recent study, the researchers assessed how all of these factors affected the participants in real-time. Once again, they recruited spouses who were both working parents, with one partner serving as the main participant and the other offering an outside perspective.
The main participants completed a morning and afternoon survey each day for 15 days, answering the same questions. This time, on the theory that outsiders might offer a more realistic personality assessment, spouses rated the main participant’s emotional stability, as well as their parental involvement during after work hours.
As in the first two studies, higher levels of parental-identity threat were associated with shame and decreased productivity. While the researchers’ analysis showed that shame did not lead to greater parental involvement on the same day, however, they spent more time with their children the next day.
“Shame isn’t an emotion that you automatically react to,” Wang tells Kellogg Insight. “You mull it over, you ruminate, and those emotions sink in. It takes time to process and respond to.”
How to Help Working Parents Cope with Shame
Interestingly, across all three studies, gender did not affect the researchers’ findings. There was no difference between how moms and dads responded to the threat of parental identity. “Of course, there are still huge discrepancies for working parents by gender,” Wang shares. “But our findings show that all genders are affected by this threat. That’s something we have to consider as a society. Everybody feels stressed out.”
The results suggest that it would be wise for organizations to understand the psychological challenges working parents face, and try to reduce feelings of shame among those employees. In addition to being careful in how they speak to and about working parents, managers can send the message that work and parenting aren’t in conflict by offering lots of schedule flexibility.
For working parents, Wang suggests using self-compassion. When something comes up at work that takes you away from family life, you can short-circuit the shame cycle by not viewing the conflict as an indictment of your parenting. “You can reappraise it as, ‘Hey, this is just something that happens.’ Don’t be so hard on yourself.”