December 7, 2022

“When parents criticise themselves in terms of their parenting, the result is a withdrawal from situations that prompt these feelings of shame – namely, pulling away from their work responsibilities,” says Wang. “By distancing themselves from work, employees attempt to manage shame by signalling that they will not allow work to adversely affect their parenting duties. That way, they can’t be judged as being more devoted to work than to their children.”

‘The thing that she’s going to remember is how much I worked’

For many working parents, the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges by blurring the boundaries between parenting time and the working day.

Take Angela, a US-based mother of one, who works as a consultant. During the pandemic, she struggled with stress when her work and home lives collided. “We had Zoom classes at the same time that my husband was doing meetings,” she says. “I would get messages from the teacher saying, ‘We can hear you on conference calls during class’. We have a small house, so there was truly no quiet space.”

The conflict between educating her daughter at home and responding to her clients’ needs exacerbated already existing feelings of guilt. Angela says she’s trying to do better by her daughter, setting boundaries to devote more time to family tasks. But even as she misses work deadlines to prioritise her family, Angela still worries her daughter will look back on her childhood as a time when her parents were constantly focused on their jobs. “I worry that of all of the things that I do for [my daughter], and all of the ways that I’m present in her life, the thing that she’s going to remember is how much I worked.”

Christy Pruitt-Haynes, a US-based HR Consultant at the NeuroLeadership Institute, says many parents Angela’s pandemic struggles.

“Many people used to use leaving the office as a signal that the work day was over, and it was time to transition to parent mode,” she says. “When your workplace and your home are the same location, it is difficult to make those mental shifts between the employee and parent identities. Overall, we found that during the pandemic parents worked longer hours and had increased parenting needs, and struggled to find a balance.”

Another layer of shame

For some, feeling shame about parenting might only have a temporary impact on productivity. But if negative emotions become deeply embedded into the working day, parents might find themselves making more significant withdrawals from office life. 

“Those who feel guilt are less likely to contribute in meetings or volunteer for new projects and initiatives,” says Naomi Murphy, a professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University, UK, whose research focuses on parental shame. “It can also impact on their relationships with colleagues, making them irritable and defensive.”