How to Survive (and Thrive) as a Working Parent
A Q&A with clinical psychologist and author Yael Schonbrun.
I’m very excited today to be running a Q&A with clinical psychologist and Brown University assistant professor Yael Schonbrun about her wonderful new book Work, Parent, Thrive, which comes out today! If you are a working parent, this book is a must-read — its insights helped me see working parenthood from a new and much more positive perspective, and the book is full of helpful strategies for making smart work-life decisions and finding balance.
In our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and brevity, we discussed some of the key insights from her book, but I strongly encourage you to get a copy for yourself.
Yael, can you share a bit about your background, as well as what inspired you to write Work, Parent, Thrive?
I'm a clinical psychologist. I was trained as an academic and a practitioner, and I specialize in studying and treating relationships. Traditionally, that's married people, and parent and child relationships as well. What inspired the book is that when I became a working parent, I had all the resources at my disposal — I was incredibly privileged and thought that I would be able to take advantage of my flexible setup and supportive partnership and progressive colleagues. And it turned out to be much harder than I expected.
So I started reading everything that I could get my hands on — mostly popular press literature. What I found there was really disheartening, because it mostly focused on things like unequal marriages, inflexible workplaces and policies that were really antiquated. And while I saw those issues, it felt to me, because I come from the perspective of a clinical psychologist, like it wasn't capturing my entire experience.
So I started diving deeper and looking more at the academic literature. And what I found there was really eye-opening. I found a lot of studies that looked at how these roles related to each other — for example, there is conflict between work and family, and there's also enrichment in that they can actually enhance each other. So because I have a special interest in how people relate to each other, and how different concepts and roles relate to each other, I started thinking about how work and parenting relate to each other, and dove really deeply into this idea of: What does it look like when they enhance each other? And what are the tools we can use to have our roles work better together?
As a working parent, I feel like I am constantly being pulled between these two worlds — my work and my family — and having to make difficult choices about where to be or what to do. In your book, you talked about using values as a guide in these moments. What does this mean, and how can we do that?
Values clarification is a core process in an evidence-based treatment that I practice called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Values work is my favorite part of the treatment, because I find it so helpful.
Most people confront, at some point, a choice that just has no good options — there isn't an obvious good outcome, no matter what you choose. And that's certainly true in working parenthood. You're on the hook to show up for your job, and there are expectations associated with that, and there's probably an internal motivation to do a good job and to put forth your best effort. At the same time, as a parent, we're really drawn to show up for our kids to make sure that they're well cared for, to make sure that they know that they're a priority to us. But we can't do it all at the same time. And so we're constantly trying to figure out, what do I do here? How do I make a good choice?
Values are helpful because they focus us in on a pathway that isn't about right or wrong. It's not about feeling good. It’s not about logic, because there are some things that we just can't logic our way through. And how values are defined is different than goals. Goals are a destination, whereas values describe a quality of action. It's how we show up for the journey. So if you're climbing a mountain, you can decide that the quality of action is going to be going as fast as you can and getting a good workout. Or you can decide it's going to be to slowly take the journey and really appreciate the sights and the smells and the sounds. And your values can change moment to moment. So if the weather changes, and there's all of a sudden a storm, rather than getting a good workout, you might decide instead to bring a quality of action of prioritizing your safety.
This is a really helpful idea in working parenthood where things are changing around us all the time. If you have a work deadline, you might decide to prioritize being very persistent and dogged in your work ethic and allow your kids to be more independent while you take care of a work task. Or if your kid is sick, you might decide to prioritize their welfare and let your boss know that unfortunately, and you're not going to be able to complete the assignment on time.
Knowing how you want to show up moment to moment can help — but it doesn't undo the fact that it's uncomfortable. Your boss being annoyed that you're not going to turn in the assignment on time is deeply uncomfortable. Your kid feeling disappointed that you're not showing up for their school play is heartbreaking for you. But if you are clear on why you are showing up in a given way, and what it is that you want to stand for, it can help you have confidence and clarity to transcend the discomfort because you know that you're doing something with clear-eyed intention.
That makes a lot of sense. It’s so helpful to have a framework to follow in these difficult moments, because we can feel so lost. Can you share a specific strategy for identifying your values in a challenging moment?
There are lots of different practices, but one of my favorites is a perspective-taking one. So think about 30 years from now — how would you look back on this moment? What would you be most proud of having stood for in this given moment? It zooms you out from the pain of the moment and really focuses you in on what feels most important. And you're not as immersed in the emotion that you feel or the self-recriminating thoughts you might be experiencing.
You talk a lot in your book about the benefits we can get from reflecting on what our two roles bring each other — how what we do at work enriches our parenting, and how what we do as a parent can enrich our work lives. For me, it’s pretty easy to see how the two complement each other, because I'm learning strategies at work that I can then use in my parenting, and my parenting experiences inform what I decide to cover at work. But I know that most people do not have that direct connection between their two identities. Maybe they feel like, “gosh, what I do at work feels so far removed from what I do in my family life.” How can a parent identify ways in which their working and parenting lives enrich each other?
For the book, I got to interview working parents from really diverse family backgrounds and job backgrounds. And without fail, when I would explain to folks what I was trying to do and explore, and ask this question of how their roles enriched each other, people came up with amazing answers. I interviewed an exotic dancer who said that after she became a parent, she would be a lot more patient and bring a sense of levity with her clients and say, “Honey, that's not how we behave in here.” She found a lot of a lot of benefit in that.
Regarding the transfer of skills from work to parenting, any way your job helps you grow unique skills can serve you well. So whether it's counting out change, coding, educating young people, administrating, serving customers, entertaining, fixing or building equipment, or sticking with a task even when you're bored out of your mind, consider how your specialized skills can help your parenting. For example, can you teach your kids these skills? Can you use them to connect? Can you use them to model your values of work ethic or contribution? And regardless of what you do, consider that juggling both your work and parenting role provides a model for your kids of how one can manage a life with many demands.
In terms of the transfer of skills from parenting to work, consider how parenting your kids offers lessons — so very many lessons! — in building your interpersonal skills. These skills include perspective-taking, being patient and compassionate, setting firm boundaries, caring deeply, laughing loudly, being playful, and relating to people whose world view is exactly the opposite of yours (as in, they think dessert should come before dinner and that Candyland is endlessly fascinating). Being a parent grows your relationship skills. And guess what? Relationship skills are a huge asset in most workplaces.
I'm thinking of my husband who edits stories on physics and cosmology, and you would think that has nothing to do with parenting, but he can have these conversations with the kids about the Big Bang and planets and just have these amazing moments with them sharing the science of the world. That's super cool.
Totally. In my book, I talk about how I envy [comedian] Jim Gaffigan’s kids, because their dinnertime is probably way funnier than mine, because I'm a psychologist and my husband is an engineer. But similar to what you're describing with your husband, my husband loves science and math. And I like talking about feelings. This is the gift of dual working parenthood where we might feel guilty, but also, it can be helpful to recognize that even though there are challenges, and the conflict is real, there are also huge gifts that get offered through working parenthood.
You just mentioned challenges and guilt, and I’m wondering: What we can do as parents when we find ourselves being self-critical, like when we tell ourselves “I’m a terrible parent” or “I’m not doing enough at work”? How do we break out of this vicious cycle?
I think you and I are both huge fans of Carla Naumburg’s recent book. I hope people pick up my book, but I really hope they pick up her book because it is so funny and warm. And it's such a great introduction and in-depth exposure to self-compassion, because that is a tool that we can always use when we're being hard on ourselves — to notice that we're being hard on ourselves, to make space for those uncomfortable feelings, and then to pivot towards more self-kindness, curiosity, and a sense of common humanity that we're not the only ones that feel this way. This whole working parent thing is hard, so self-compassion is really important.
Yes! I interviewed Carla in a recent newsletter about her book You Are Not A Sh*tty Parent and we discussed some of her strategies.
The other thing that I like to think about is that our emotions have important functions. Guilt is an emotion that is wired into us to protect our relationships. If you think about pre-modern times, having the motivation to be careful with our relationships could mean the difference between surviving and not surviving, reproducing and not reproducing. When it comes to parenting, it's definitely hardwired into us. If you don't pay good attention to your kids, and you’re in an open space, you could be eaten by a predator. Your child might not survive. So that impulse to make sure that our kids are top priority is really hardwired.
Sometimes it’s helpful to pay attention to guilt because it can inform us and help us to re-prioritize whatever activity we've been neglecting. But oftentimes guilt is sort of like a misfire — it's like hangover from old times that isn't serving us well. Because the reality is that it's good for our kids to be neglected from time to time. It's good for them to be with other caregivers, it's good for them to be bored, it's good for them to make mistakes and figure out how to recover from them, it’s good for them to be disappointed. And it's also good for us to take a break from work, right? It might be disappointing, or our boss may really not like it, but if we take a break and engage in parenting, we can come back with more juice in our battery, which is hard to do if you spend the entire time feeling rotten about yourself. It's going to be better for us to let go of the guilt, take a real break and then come back with more energy at our disposal to do the job in the way that we find most satisfying and most productive.
Today, after we finish talking, I'm actually going to an inn with a spa and spending the night. When my husband had Covid, I had to cancel a bunch of stuff, including a trip away. And I was really sad about it and I was like, you know what, once he's all better, I'm going to take a night away. And my kids were like, “Wait, what? Why are you leaving us?” But I know I will come back tomorrow and have more to bring to them and probably to my work life as well. We need to step away sometimes.
That’s such a good example, and I think that we don't share enough about the ways that we take care of ourselves. It feels like it's self-indulgent and we feel a sense of shame. In the book, I out myself as being a napper. I love naps — for me, they are so restorative. And there's really good science suggesting that naps are really, really helpful. And yet, when my oldest son outed me to an adult that I was just starting to get to know that I nap, I was so embarrassed. And I realized we have so much shame around taking care of ourselves, because we live in this culture that really overvalues working and always being present as a parent, even though the science does not support the utility of that notion.
Yes. That's so true. Related to this, in your book, you talk about the idea of subtracting — the idea that we can be thoughtful and strategic in learning how to do less. And it's not easy. And sometimes we don't have those choices. But I think a lot of times we do have the choice, and we just may not realize it. I struggle with this in practice — I tend to think I'm just gonna do all the things and it'll be fine. Can you talk a bit about the value of subtracting and how we start doing it?
The human mind is wired to add, so you're not alone. There's a reason that Marie Kondo and other people who share with us the beauty of uncluttered houses are so popular — because we look at the Zen, empty-ish houses and they look so calm and peaceful.
What the science shows us in terms of the cognitive piece is that we have a hard time doing the action of subtracting, and it's because it often doesn't occur to us. We engage in what's called subtraction neglect. We don't even think about it. What's more, when we are overwhelmed, that tendency to neglect subtraction grows stronger. So the busier you are, the less likely you are to take something off your plate, which is really unfortunate. Busy working parents are even less likely to do subtracting than non-busy people, who are also not that likely to do it. I think it's really illuminating — the busiest people only add more things to their calendar.
That realization empowers us to get more deliberate. We can circumvent our natural wiring and develop habits of subtracting. The researcher whose work I draw on, Leidy Klotz, suggests this really great tool: In addition to your “to do” list, have a “stop doing” list. Every time you revisit your to do list, don't forget to consider your stop doing list. And the thing that I like to come back to is values. So if you think about the various tasks that you engage in throughout your day, apply a values clarification: How much does this matter in terms of how I want to look back on this phase of life? What are activities that feel really important that I really want to stand for, and what activities matter a lot less to me?
For example, I think for most of us do a lot of scrolling through social media. And that may be important. I know, for example, for journalists, it's really important to stay engaged with your audience and to connect to sources. But for many of us, it’s not productive, and it doesn't feel terribly meaningful. Be really careful and deliberate about how you spend your time and use your values as a guide for figuring out what can be subtracted.
I also think specifically in parenting that this can be really important because there's so much social pressure with regard to what kids should be doing. And I think it can be really helpful to unhook from that and ask yourself: What do I think is important for us as a family? What do my kids really value doing? And what do they value less, but we're spending a lot of time and probably money on that I can maybe subtract?
So it’s important to pay attention to what you're doing and think about things deliberately. The problem is, I feel like sometimes as a working parent, I am not noticing. I'm so busy and and frazzled and I'm just sort of on autopilot. I never really sit down and think: Do I need to do this? Is this the best use of my time or my kids’ time? I guess we need to have moments of reflection built into our days to be able to think about it.
It's paradoxical — as most things are in psychology — but in order to get more efficient, you have to slow down. This is where I think building habits can be really helpful. For example, build a habit of beginning to notice: What do I feel like when I'm really stressed and overwhelmed? And build habits where, when you notice that, you take ten minutes and write down all the things that you have to do. And then spend another few minutes thinking about what you can cross off that list and decide not to do. And then maybe even develop a habit on Sunday nights or Monday mornings of charting out your week and trying to figure out what meetings you can skip or what activities you thought made sense, but actually don't.
Zooming out, think about the annual things that you do for the holidays, or for your kids’ birthdays, and really reflect on: Do I need to or or do I not? But yes, it requires you to be deliberate and sit down and take the time. But that can make you more efficient, because then you'll be spending your time on the things that really matter.
That is so helpful. I know there’s so much more in your book — I encourage everyone to get a copy! — but what would you like to share as a final take-home?
At the end of the day, what I'm really hoping to instill in people is a bit of a mindset shift — the idea of moving from a mindset where we think about work and family as being in conflict with one another, to a mindset of thinking about the real kinship between work and family. It’s an enriching relationship, which doesn't mean that there isn't conflict. But we can see the conflict as something that can undergird growth and enrichment and happiness and meaning. It is a perspective shift in terms of what the uncomfortable conflict feels like — which doesn't mean that it's not uncomfortable. It just means we experience it with an understanding that there are opportunities embedded in it.
In last week’s Well newsletter for The New York Times, I explored the psychology of horror fandom. Why do some people love horror movies and haunted houses, while others don’t? Some research even suggests exposure to horror can be good for our mental health. The insights I learned were fascinating. Read it here.
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