“I’m a single dad who does most of the childcare. I also work full-time and write my ex-wife a large monthly check,” said Rob, a single dad and employment lawyer. Rob is the primary caregiver, but other parents and teachers still call his ex-wife when arranging playdates or scheduling conferences. It grates on Rob that people assume that being male offers a ticket out of work-family conflict since that very assumption exacerbates Rob’s working-parent pain. For instance, he said, “There is no ‘Daddy and me’ that meets during the weekdays, and mothers usually don’t want a guy hanging around when they are breastfeeding. This creates severe loneliness.”
Women are often the primary care-takers, diaper changers, and dentist-appointment makers while also inhabiting breadwinning roles, but work-family conflict can’t be exclusively attributed to gender. Even the long list of external factors—such as racism, financial problems, marginalization, job and food insecurity, the lack of mandated paid family leave in the United States, inflexible workplaces, inadequate access to flexible, affordable childcare—does not explain the entirety of the work-family conflict problem. When hard-fought solutions are finally implemented, working parents often continue to struggle mightily. As one physician and mom of three explained it in my therapy office, the searing guilt of long work days and exhausted parenting eat away at her. Another patient, a lawyer, described the sadness of not being able to attend his daughter’s baseball game and still make the necessary billable hours.
Even lucky individuals—the working parents with financial resources, flexible schedules, and supportive partnerships—habitually feel internal conflict. After all, as early twentieth-century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud noted, “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness [emphasis mine].” Being driven to master skills and make public contributions while also participating in deeply loving relationships are innately human drives. Since acting in line with one drive necessarily means you have stepped away from the other, there is no way around the experience of role tension. In other words, work-family conflict turns out to be a feature, not a bug, of being human.
Instead of trying to resist role conflict, recognizing its inevitability can help set you on a more productive path.
As psychologist and author of The Ape that Understood the Universe Steve Stewart-Williams, explained, natural selection built us to be chronically conflicted for good reason: “A diverse array of desires and drives ensures that we’re ready to take whichever path presents itself to us. Also, having multiple, incompatible desires is like having a miniature parliament in our heads: One faction argues for one thing, another argues for another, and the clash of perspectives often leads to better decisions.” While Stewart-Williams admitted that “adaptive” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘fun,’” seeking to eliminate role conflict and viewing a lack thereof as the ultimate sign of progress creates an unwinnable situation. As it is said in the Tao te Ching, “Hard and easy complete each other.”
Instead of trying to resist role conflict, recognizing its inevitability can help set you on a more productive path. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung noted, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” And as modern research shows, trying to eliminate uncomfortable human experiences tends to yield the paradoxical effect of amplifying them. Trying to suppress distressing thoughts and feelings only to find them getting amplified is so predictable that psychologists have even given it a name: “the suppression effect.” And they have identified that a more effective strategy for managing uncomfortable, internal experiences involves allowing, rather than ridding, those experiences, and doing so in a particular way—with self-compassion.
Research from self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff and her colleagues defines self-compassion as a set of practices that includes making contact with internal distressing experiences, and doing so with the sort of kindness we often naturally offer to those we care about. The practices of self-compassion also invite us to recognize the universality of human pain and suffering, recognizing that there is nothing at all wrong with us for having whatever experience we are having. Perhaps surprisingly, research shows that practicing self-compassion during moments of suffering helps us to achieve more effectiveness in the roles we care about most, as well as greater happiness in our life’s journey.
Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh offered a notion of “no mud, no lotus” in his beautiful book of the same name to explain how our suffering can even, at times, serve us quite well. The idea here is that mud provides the beautiful lotus with needed nourishment. As sticky, dirty, and disgusting as mud feels, its existence is the reason floral goodness flourishes. Beauty and muck often go hand in hand. This notion applies to the role conflict in working parenthood, too. For instance, when you have to leave work before finishing a project because daycare is about to close, this time pressure can make you more efficient at work. And the feeling of having mastery at work after a morning of cereal thrown at the wall, or having children who could care less that you got overlooked for a promotion at work, can help you manage your stress more effectively. Appreciating both the unavoidability and the embedded benefits of the inside problem of working parenthood helps us cease our unwinnable battle and conserve energy to fight the battles in what can be changed, including more humane social policy, workplace flexibility, and marital equality.
The outside problems of working parenthood cause unnecessary suffering and are problems that we need to identify and work against by continuing to push workplaces, our partners, and society to make advances in expectations and practices. But the inside problem of working parenthood can’t be solved the same way. Distinguishing between the outside and inside problem of working parenthood can help us manage both more effectively.
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