I sit in the car with a sweaty phone held to my ear, glancing anxiously at the clock.
My phone-in meeting with research colleagues has started late and I am pushing the limits of my son’s extended preschool day. My child will be the last one picked up, and I am about to seriously irritate the teachers who are itching to go home.
Here’s where I reveal myself to my colleagues, my childcare providers, and my child: I fall short of what most people expect from me as an ambitious professional and a committed parent.
I don’t need to rehash the whole conversation about the balance between work and parenthood—it’s already tediously present in the public domain. I sometimes wonder how there could be more to say on the matter. Yet, the path that resides between the full-time professional life that some parents lead and the touted all-in parenthood existence that is maintained by many others is nearly invisible.
The parents who back down from their professional careers so they can be more available to their families are all too often neglected in the work-family conversation. But, as I learned when I entered this world about six years ago, they exist in droves.
The definition of part-time professional life varies widely. Some part-timers work 32 hours a week and others work less than 10. But beyond that quantifiable definition, most parents—even the ones who formally remain full-time—describe dialing back work lives to accommodate family life after the arrival of children.
Regardless of whether we have official part-time status or not, this dialed-back professional life that many parents pursue carries all sorts of rewards: we are able to sustain our love of our work, intellectual stimulation, financial compensation, and engaging social networks. And we get to complement our work experiences with fuller engagement—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—as parents. The ability to obtain the tangible reward and recognition available in professional life, and which is often unattainable within the role of parent, can even make parenthood feel all the more joyous.
In other words, work life can enrich parenting life, and parenting life can enrich work life. And yet, part-timing can be a tricky endeavor.
First, part-time options for workers are an enormous privilege that remain unavailable for many professionals. And even when part-time options are available, professionals are often pejoratively branded “mommy-tracked” when they choose that path. On the parenting front, part-time work status is likely to make us doubt our effectiveness and parenting identity. Self-doubt creeps in as we wonder if we are letting our child or children down. We may worry about our parenting peers’ judgment, as well as our work status’s impact on our children.
The bottom line is that shifting from all-in effort to sustaining engagement in two highly demanding worlds represents an enormous practical and personal transition for many working parents. Even as we keep a foot in our professional lives, the tangible means of reward, recognition, and remuneration we enjoy are significantly reduced because of the limited time we are devoting. And then there is the ever-present guilt, sometimes even shame, of letting everyone down because our finite energy and attention is scattered in so many directions.
After excusing myself from my phone meeting, I quickly head into the preschool to pick up my son. I try to shake off my discomfort in being the first to cut out of my phone meeting while simultaneously trying not to let myself get stuck in the mental muck of being the last parent to do pick up.
But even as I experience the weight of all those uncomfortable emotions, seeing my smiling kiddo reminds me why I chose this path.
The choice to be part-time allows me to be deeply engaged in both of the self-defining worlds of parenthood and professional life. While part-time status brings its challenges, it is still more than worthwhile. After all, despite the loss of all-in effort and consequent elevated performance, I can more successfully access my best and happiest self because I am engaged in both of the worlds that fundamentally define who I am at my core.
As ambitious people, we can find deep fulfillment and meaning in work life. And, as parents, witnessing and connecting with our children can bring a profound sense of joy and satisfaction. Engaging in both of these worlds can help us build richer, happier lives, even though it requires a complicated juggling act and sometimes thorny psychological journey.
Many modern parents identify with this path somewhere in-between all-consuming professional life and full-time parenthood.
If we cast a wider net in our understanding of parenting and professional experiences, we might be able to improve our understanding of what it takes to be effective in professional life after children arrive, as well as effective as parents even as we sustain professional involvement.
If we can talk more openly about our experience of this in-between pathway as part of the greater cultural conversation about work-life balance, we can help to smooth the pathway for others, and possibly ourselves too. Because if we can get a more accurate picture of the challenges working parents face today, we might just be able to normalize them, manage them with less anxiety and support each other better to work and live accordingly.
Author: Yael Chatav Schonbrun
Image: @mother_pukka on Instagram
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren