When I was a kid, my father said something in passing that now haunts me as a parent. One weekend, as my brothers and I were splashing and screwing around in a pool and ignoring his swimming lesson, he grew frustrated and said something to the effect of “you know, people listen to me at work.”
Following a recent messy Sunday of scrambling to get my daughter to swim class and fighting about screen time, I felt my father’s frustration. My day started quietly. I sipped coffee and scribbled a to-do list in a yellow legal pad. My staff listened with attentive respect as I laid out the day’s plan in cordial, professional language. As the day past, I checked off the items on the list, one by one, secure in my purpose and certain of my goals.
At some point, I remembered the previous night’s five-minute stand-off with my daughter who refused to brush her teeth and how flustered I felt trying to handle the situation. I felt like work made sense in a way that parenting often didn’t. Then I felt my heart drop to my stomach.
The phrase “The Sunday Scaries” was coined to describe the anxiety many have about the work week ahead and everything it brings with it. Parents, for the most part, don’t have that. At least in my experience, and in the experience of those with whom I have spoken about it, work seems more of a respite, one where the routine can feel like a break.
When I asked Florida dad of three Derek Warren if that feeling sounded familiar, he laughed and said he felt it “pretty much every Sunday evening about five o’clock.”
“There’s weird feeling you get on Sunday nights,” he said. “You’re depressed because you in a few hours you’re going to bed and the weekend’s over and you’ve got to go to work. And then there’s a feeling like of elation where you’re going to go to bed, get away from the screaming kids, and you’re going to work and getting away from the screaming kids. It’s like love and hate, you know? It’s not a good thing.”
The philosopher poets Loverboy once opined that everybody’s working for the weekend. But modern parents often feel like they’re working much harder on the weekends. With the changing demographics and geography of modern families, today’s parents can frequently feel lost during kid time and relieved to re-enter the world of grown-ups on Monday morning.
“You don’t necessarily want to forget that you’re a parent, but you want to remember the aspects of yourself that don’t depend on being a parent, whether that’s just talking about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Monday Night Football or whatever,” Brooklyn dad and blogger Mike Julianelle said.
This isn’t an isolated issue. Psychotherapist and parent coach Olivia Bergeron said she often hears clients say they’re more comfortable at work than with their kids due to people’s ability to predict how those around them will behave. We can reasonably assume, she says, that grown-ups in the workplace will generally follow professional codes of conduct and courtesy, or at the very least adhere to social norms of behavior. But as anyone who’s ever tried to get a toddler dressed knows, children are more volatile.
“With kids in general, it can be chaotic,” Bergeron said. “It can be unpredictable. And at least if you’re at work, there’s a certain level of predictability and decorum that adults will engaged in and the kids just will not, because they’re kids. And I think for a lot of folks, that kind of level chaos can be unsettling.”
In the midst of that chaos, parents need to work far harder to communicate than they need to in a professional environment. At work, unless there’s an emergency, a difficult co-worker or a tyrannical boss, work exchanges involve professional courtesy and needed information. That’s not what happens when we talk to kids.
Steve, a successful professional and dad of a special needs son living in California, said he has to work much harder talking to his kid than his coworkers. He needs to first read his sons’ emotional state, then distill sometimes-complicated concepts into the simplest language possible while keeping a perfectly calibrated tone of cheerful and energetic authority.
“Sometimes at work you have to deal with egos and break through an emotional reaction,” he said. “With kids, there’s a component of that with every single interaction.”
Even if parents do get the right emotional read and choose their words wisely enough to be understood, it’s often required to convey a sometimes unnatural enthusiasm to keep your kids on board with the plan. As Steve put it, “you almost have to take on the personality of one of those whack-a-doodle YouTube kids.”
Adults are becoming parents later in life. By the time they have kids in their 30s and 40s, they’ve advanced in their careers and are confident in their professions. Meanwhile, as rookie parents, they have far less confidence about their ability to do right by their kids.
“You’re used to being in control and competent and capable, and all of a sudden you’re thrust into this role where you’re feeling completely incompetent and incapable of managing things,” Bergeron said. “It can feel very unsettling.”
When parents live away from their extended families they’re deprived of chances to take time for themselves. “You’re supposed to be able to pass the baby off to aunts and uncles and grandma and grandpa and go take a break, do what you need to get done and come back,” Bergeron said.
Without this, modern parents raise kids alone at a time when not only expectations for parenting but the ability to compare yourselves to other parents, have risen dramatically. For parents, the result feels like being pulled in five directions at once.
“How do you keep them occupied while you make breakfast?,” Steve posed as one scenario. “You feel pressure to have a memorable breakfast. You don’t want to slam a bowl of cereal down in front of them.”
Being unable to meet the expectations one sets for themselves while parenting can easily make moms and dads feel upset. And if they’re flourishing work but struggling at home, they can start to feel alienated from their kid. Disconnection from home can lead to invest more at work, further perpetuating an unhealthy cycle of guilt, avoidance, and recrimination.
The cycle can feel difficult to cope with, but it’s by no means singular. Bergeron said that it’s common for parents to feel spread thin and to seek solace in the routine of work. But this is why self-care and proper boundaries a necessary part of a healthier parental work-life balance.
“Make sure you’re filling your own cup so you can serve other people,” she said. “Put your own oxygen mask on first. Taking care of yourself allows you to take care of other people. Otherwise you can white knuckle it for a while, but you’re going to hit a wall.”