Work is an escape from dirty diapers, for better or for worse. And parents who are lucky enough to enjoy their careers are justified in seeing their time at the office as a welcome break from child rearing responsibilities, pediatrician and career coach Dr. Jarret Patton says, adding that such compartmentalization may actually help parents maintain a healthier work-life balance. Problems only arise when moms and dads allow their guilt about loving work to affect their parenting.
“Parenting is more difficult than any job you get paid for,” Patton told Fatherly. “Just like you need a break with your own job, it’s important to take breaks from parenting.”
Guilt about enjoying your job even as it takes you away from your kids can compel you to overcompensate by spoiling them when you have some time off, Patton warns. It can also put added pressure on the time spent with children in general, which just stresses everyone out. Of course, kids benefit from time spent with engaged and present parents who are scrambling to make an impact, but research consistently shows that this is the most effectively achieved through everyday, mundane moments. Moms and dads don’t have to overthink quality time for it to work.
While a bulk of the research on parental guilt and work-life balance focuses on working moms, Patton suspects that fathers are hit just as hard—albeit differently. With limited paternity leave options for many men, the pressure of having to go back to work sooner could be compounded by feelings of shame for enjoying the colic hiatus. With the testosterone dip that accompanies fatherhood only adding to the problem, dads who like their careers are bound to feel bad about it.
Fathers can make sure they’re not enjoying work at the expense of enjoying their families is by setting some boundaries at home. If work is a break from parenting, then family time has to be a break from work. Patton suggests parents not answer their phones or check their emails during family time unless it’s an emergency. This ensures that, when you are around, you’re present. He also suggests parents manage their guilt by remembering that work is how they provide for their families.
Heidi McBain, a marriage and family therapist, agrees that there’s nothing wrong with feeling that work is an escape from the less pleasant parts of parenthood, noting an increasing amount of evidence that trying to do everything all at once is bad for everyone. “It should be helpful to super focus on work while they are there, and when they are at home it should be helpful to super focus on family while they are at home,” McBain told Fatherly. “But, as with most things, I think this is often easier said than done.”