Working Parents, It’s Time to Let Go of These Pandemic-Era Habits
On May 11, the U.S. Covid-19 Public Health Emergency officially expires. But if you’re like most of the working parents in my coaching practice, what hasn’t yet expired are many of the perspectives and day-to-day practices that got you through the pandemic.
Amidst the unprecedented pressures of the past three years, all of us who are combining career and kids had to use new moves, and a lot of them, in order to “make it work.” Maybe you and your partner learned to alternate shifts on the days daycare was closed, or you led off each Zoom call with a disclaimer that the baby was in the background — and so on.
Some of these hacks continue to serve us well. Maybe thousands of Zoom-call disclaimers later, you’ve gotten comfortable discussing family responsibilities with colleagues and feel more authentic on the job. Or maybe continuing to work remotely, at least part time, allows you to stay more involved in the kids’ school activities than you ever could have while commuting five days a week. And certain practical pandemic-era solutions (think: virtual parent-teacher conferences) are so working parent–friendly that we’d all do well to keep them.
At the same time, many of our Covid-era routines and beliefs aren’t helping us anymore. In fact, some of these practical and mental moves, now deeply embedded in our muscle memory, are actually making it harder for us to do what we really want: to succeed in our careers, while being loving and present caregivers, and staying healthy, whole, and ourselves in the process.
In order to set yourself up for success in combining career and children going forward, I want you to challenge that muscle memory a little. You’ve likely already done some deliberate, careful thinking about how to take the good from the pandemic era, homing in on the routines and behaviors (like those more regular family mealtimes) you absolutely want to keep. Now, try going one step further and ask yourself: What isn’t serving me anymore?
To spur along that thinking, let’s get specific. Below are four different pandemic-era working-parent habits and perspectives that I see many moms and dads holding onto — and that you may be also, even at personal or professional cost. Scan the list and observe which ones land for you. For each one, I’ll then share a low-stakes but effective way for you to reset: to tweak and update that particular habit or perspective so that it can work better for you going forward.
Four Pandemic-Era Habits and Perspectives
1. Making do with limited childcare.
Throughout the Covid crisis, many or most of us had to work full time while simultaneously parenting full time, and that was downright heroic. But somewhere along the way, what was once heroic became normalized, and even expected. The fact that we survived without regular or reliable daycare morphed into a creeping feeling that I should be able to function without too much help, or worse, congealed into a belief that good parenting means using as little care as I can.
As a result, many of us are now either seeking less help than we actually need or feeling guilty when we do. As one of my new working-mother clients — a corporate finance executive — recently told me, “The baby should be with me throughout her first year. And if other parents managed to get through without care during the pandemic, I can too!” This previously high-performing professional, now attempting to simultaneously care for her baby and her company’s budgeting process, was referred to me when, unsurprisingly, her work quality began to slip and, by her own admission, she was rapidly nearing burnout.
Her particular case may be pronounced, but do you recognize a bit of yourself in it, or are you being bullied by your own childcare shoulds?
New Move: Make prudent, ongoing decisions about the childcare you really need.
Instead of holding yourself to unrealistic standards borne of a wartime environment, ask yourself: What care arrangement do I need today in order to do my job effectively? Maybe that means having the kids stay in the school aftercare program two days a week so you can make it to in-person sales calls, or maybe now that your partner is back at work full time, you decide to extend the nanny-share arrangement to cover Fridays as well.
There’s no right or wrong here, and different care arrangements work for each family. The point, however, is to get away from being chained to unrealistic standards and to start proactively managing toward current needs. And no, getting adequate care doesn’t make you a bad or negligent parent. It means that when you’re with your kids, you can be with them — and not frazzled, ground down, and/or trying to do a demanding job at the same time.
2. Seeing remote work as The Answer.
You worked at home for two-plus years and never missed a Zoom call, much less a deadline. Now, your company is pushing for a return to the office…and it feels as if you’re being asked to relinquish the single precious tool that makes being a working parent possible.
New Move: Think as broadly and creatively as possible about the flex arrangement that will work for you.
Remote work was a godsend during the pandemic, and it may still be a powerful, core tool in your working-parent arsenal — but it’s not the only one. If a key goal is to be available to your kids during evening homework time, perhaps shifting your hours or working a compressed schedule could do the trick instead. Or maybe other, more structural changes are what’s really called for at this point in your life and career — for example, a job-sharing arrangement could allow you two full days off per week. The more expansive your thinking, the more likely you are to be able to craft the specific working-parent life you want.
3. Getting through today.
Schools were closed, work was endless, and the isolation was draining. And to hoard what little energy you had left, you learned to take life one day at a time. Goals? No — life was about getting through til 5 PM.
New Move: Actively imagine the bigger picture and longer term.
Short-term thinking is an effective self-preservation maneuver during a crisis. But if it’s still your go-to move, then you’re doing yourself a disservice, making life tougher and more daunting than it needs to be.
Instead, try opening up the aperture. If you can create a mental picture of where you want to be professionally, personally, and as a parent years from now, it will make the responsibilities of working parenthood look much more feasible today. With a specific positive outcome in mind — an outcome that you’ve chosen — all the smaller, daily decisions you face will become more straightforward, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that all the hard work you’re putting in right now is serving an important purpose. With a sense of momentum toward that goal, you’ll also feel more energetic and motivated. If, for example, you know that you want to one day lead this division, while remaining the central adult in my children’s lives, then you’ll feel much more “together” than if you simply try to endure whatever stresses and strains come hurtling at you in any 24-hour period.
Don’t have that “success picture” in mind? Not to worry. Simply spend some time mulling what you want your career and family life to be life a few years from now, and observing other working parents you admire. Over time, your working-parent goals will naturally begin to crystallize.
4. Framing work as the enemy.
Your son bursts into the background of a Zoom call or starts vying for your attention while you’re reading an urgent message from your boss — and you snap, “Not now! Daddy has work to do!” Or on mornings you have to be in the office, you remind the kids that “Mommy won’t be home for dinner tonight” with a heavy sigh.
New Move: Discuss work in a positive way with your kids.
When work and home-life responsibilities clash, as they did so often and starkly throughout the pandemic, it’s natural to view and talk about them in oppositional terms. And you’re only human, after all: Your boss’s message is stressful to read, or you’re disappointed about missing dinner.
But try flipping things around and seeing them from your kids’ perspective. They’ve watched you quite closely these past few years. They’ve seen your tension and disappointments and witnessed your short fuse. As you nurture them toward their own eventual adulthoods, are those really the feelings and attitudes you want them to associate with work and career?
There’s no need to talk about work in purely rosy terms, but think about updating your script a bit. Say, “Mom is going to work” instead of “Mom has to go to work” — or talk with the kids about a recent work success, or a moment you were proud of, or what drew you into your field or function in the first place. Let them see some of the upsides and satisfaction you find in your work so they can start imagining their own.
. . .
As you read over this list, what resonated? Jot down your ideas, or bounce them off your partner or a few trusted friends. And then broaden the frame further. Ask yourself what other pandemic-era habits you want to hold onto firmly, forever — and which to pivot away from, starting today. Trust your instincts. This is your life and career and family, and you know what works. As you iterate and refine your thinking, what will emerge is your new, unique playbook — not for surviving as a working parent in a crisis, but for thriving now, and in the future.