Raising Successful Kids

'It's not about being a perfect parent': Stanford sociologist shares 3 ways to succeed at work while raising kids

Dr. Marianne Cooper is a Stanford sociologist specializing in gender studies and the future of work.
Source: Marianne Cooper

Balancing a full-time job with raising young children is a challenge — leading some burned out parents to fully put their careers on hold.

The struggle of "parental exhaustion" has only gotten harder since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for current parents of toddlers, says Dr. Marianne Cooper, a Stanford University sociologist who researches gender and the future of work.

Those children, aged 2 to 5, would have been born just before or during the early days of the pandemic.

"My sense is that people are still really struggling, because there's not enough childcare slots. It's still not affordable. And there's just been significant levels of illness among children and their parents," Cooper tells CNBC Make It. "I can see how that just adds up to parents arriving at a point where they think, 'I don't know if I can keep working.'"

Pausing a career is a huge decision for parents, who must weigh the happiness of their families against the possibility of earning less or having trouble finding a job once they return to the workforce.

But many feel like they have no choice, often due to a lack of affordable child care options or feeling exhausted from trying to simultaneously do too much at home and in the office.

Today's parents are most likely to make that decision when their kids are between the ages of 2 and 5, according to a recent study from child care startup Vivvi, which partnered with The Mom Project and Werklabs to survey more than 5,500 people in October 2022.

If you're in a similar situation, you may have more options than you realize, Cooper says. Here are her suggestions to "somewhat improve a really difficult reality" for parents trying to raise families without sacrificing career success.

Be realistic and don't be too hard on yourself

Off the bat, Cooper stresses an important tenet: Don't strive for perfection, because you're unlikely to achieve it.

"It's not about being the perfect parent, it's about being a good enough parent and having some kind of balance between spending all of your time at work or all of your time at home," she says.

It's easy to feel like you aren't spending enough time with your children, or that you're going through the motions at work. "This feeling like you're never [as] successful and doing as well as you'd like to do in either realm is really hard. And it makes people feel really badly," Cooper says.

But no parent can spend 24 hours a day with their children, and everyone needs to take mental breaks at work. Remember not to hold yourself to impossible standards, Cooper advises: Splitting your time between work and raising a family isn't something to beat yourself up about.

That's one of the few things you can actually control in such a difficult situation, she adds.

Prioritize employers who trust you to control your own schedule

The "unpredictable" nature of family life means work flexibility is key, Cooper says.

Some employers allow employees to shift their schedules when necessary to prioritize family responsibilities, trusting them to still get their work done in a timely fashion. Other companies are more rigid about when and where you're working.

"That kind of unforgiving culture is really difficult for [parents]," Cooper says, adding that your best bet is a company where the "workplace culture is focused more on accomplishing specific goals and outcomes instead of where and when work is getting done."

You can try talking to your employer about getting more flexibility and freedom. Finding the perfect situation could also mean looking for a new job, possibly one that lets you work from home regularly or offers malleable deadlines.

Not every job or industry supports remote work, but the normalization of remote or hybrid job openings is one pandemic silver lining.

And while working from home with kids can have drawbacks and distractions, working mothers with child care needs are 32% less likely to quit if they can work remotely, a 2021 Catalyst study found.

Talk to your family

If you're feeling burned out, try to avoid making a rash decision. Brainstorm your options with your family: You may not realize how many choices you have until you talk it through with people you trust.

The more options, the better. Stepping back from your career should never be your first choice, especially since it typically comes with "long-term financial penalties," Cooper says. A leave of absence can negatively affect your future earnings just by slowing your progression toward potential promotions, for example.

It can especially hurt women, Cooper notes. Women are more likely to handle the bulk of caregiving duties in U.S. households, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted last year — indicating that they may feel more pressure to pause their careers than men.

And women already earn less than their male counterparts: 82 cents for each dollar men earned in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center.

"It can be really difficult to reenter [the workforce]," Cooper says. "And oftentimes, they're trapped in mother-friendly jobs that are often part time or offer lower pay. There's real penalties that people experience."

If your struggles become truly "unsustainable," and you've exhausted every other option, try taking a temporary work pause before putting your career on hold indefinitely, she suggests. Setting a defined return date, for example, could help.

"It's understandable that people, especially over the last few years, have arrived at that point," Cooper says. "We should be thinking about jobs and careers with the idea that people will need to take time out — whether it's for their children, their own mental health, their own health."

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