Working Parents Feel Pulled in Two Directions. What Does This Mean for Companies?
Skip to content
Organizations Dec 1, 2021

Working Parents Feel Pulled in Two Directions. What Does This Mean for Companies?

A new study looks at what happens when parental and professional identities collide.

parent chasing child in rainstorm

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Rebecca L. Greenbaum

Yingli Deng

Marcus Butts

Cynthia S. Wang

Alexis Smith

For working parents, every day is a juggling act. You’re trying to keep an eye on an important deadline here and a piano recital there—without letting anything drop.

Trying to do it all can provoke complicated emotions. New research from Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, finds that working parents are vulnerable to fears that they aren’t focusing enough on child-rearing. While that may not be a surprising finding to most working parents, the research goes on to show that these worries can trigger feelings of shame that lead to reduced productivity at work.

The researchers focused on what they call parental-identity threat, the sense that your role as a parent has been challenged by career demands. “As an example, sometimes I teach in the evenings and have to miss special events,” Wang explains. “In these types of situations, my identity as a parent is unfortunately being threatened because of what’s been happening at work.” The threat can be triggered in many ways: by a schedule conflict, a comment from a colleague, or the realization that you’ve forgotten something important on the home front.

Wang is not surprised that the experience can promote so much shame.

“Parents are always questioning whether they’re being a good parent, and there’s so much societal pressure about the ‘right’ way to parent. All these pressures put so much burden on us that shame becomes a prevalent emotion.”

Still, it’s not all bad news. Wang and her coauthors—Rebecca Greenbaum of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, Yingli Deng of Durham University, Marcus Butts of Southern Methodist University, and Alexis Washington of Oklahoma State University—found that these feelings of shame can prompt parents to spend more quality time with their children. They also learned that not everyone falls victim to shame when they feel they’ve fallen short as parents.

Understanding Working Parents’ Shame

The researchers chose to focus on people’s identity as a parent and not their identity as an employee, because even though everyone has multiple roles, parental identity is arguably the more central of the two. After all, caring for one’s offspring is integral to human nature and there is a strong cultural consensus that parents should prioritize their children’s needs above the needs associated with other role identities.

The researchers first wanted to better understand the nature of the threat that parents feel when their work life disrupts their home life. Who is the most impacted? How does it make them feel? And does it affect their productivity at work?

The researchers began by recruiting 201 working parents to complete an online study before their workday began. Participants first answered a set of questions designed to assess their emotional stability, or ability to handle stressful situations calmly, rating how much they exhibited traits such as moodiness and jealousy.

Next, participants were divided into two groups: those in the high-parental-identity-threat group read that (unbeknownst to them, fictitious) research had shown working parents aren’t as involved with or close to their children as nonworking parents. Those in the low-parental-identity-threat group read another fictitious piece of research that said that working parents are just as involved with and close to their children as nonworking parents. Then, participants rated how strongly they agreed with statements designed to assess their levels of parental-identity threat, such as “My role as a parent was looked at in a negative way.”

“We make up for the shame that we’re feeling by spending more quality time with our kids.”

— Cynthia Wang

Hours later, after work, all participants reported their shame, rating how much they felt ashamed, humiliated, and embarrassed at that moment. They also rated how productive they had been at work that day.

Not surprisingly, participants who read about the perils of being a working parent reported more identity threat than those who did not. Those in the high-parental-identity-threat group also reported higher levels of shame and lower levels of work productivity.

But there was an interesting catch: for participants with high emotional stability, experiencing parental-identity threat did not lead them to feel shame, and their work productivity was unharmed.

When Parental Identity Is Threatened, Moms and Dads Double Down

In their next study, the researchers wanted to understand how parental-identity threat would affect parental involvement. Would feeling criticized actually shame parents into spending extra time with their kids?

To answer that question, the researchers recruited 259 sets of spouses who were both working parents, with one partner serving as the main participant and the other offering an outside perspective.

To begin, the main participants rated their levels of parental-identity threat, shame, and workplace productivity over the past week, as well as their overall emotional stability, using the same questions as the first study. For a more objective outside view, spouses rated how often in the previous week the main participants had spent quality time with their children.

The results of the second study replicated what the researchers saw in the first: parental-identity threat triggers feelings of shame, which, in turn, leads to lower productivity. And the researchers’ analysis showed that higher levels of emotional stability again put the brakes on this cycle, preventing the feelings of shame and its downstream effects.

But experiencing shame also had a potential upside, the researchers learned: participants who felt more shame from parental-identity threat also invested more energy into parenting. In short, “we make up for the shame that we’re feeling by spending more quality time with our kids,” Wang explains.

A Real-Time View of Working-Parent Guilt

In the last study, the researchers examined how all of these factors, from shame to productivity, played out in real time. Once again, they recruited spouses who were both working parents, with one partner serving as the main participant and the other offering an outside perspective.

The main participants completed a morning and afternoon survey each day for 15 days, answering questions about their parental-identity threat, shame, and (in the afternoon survey) workplace productivity. This time, on the theory that outsiders might offer a more realistic personality assessment, spouses rated the main participant’s emotional stability, as well as their parental involvement during afterwork hours.

As in the first two studies, higher levels of parental-identity threat were associated with stronger feelings of shame, leading to decreased productivity. While the researchers’ analysis showed that shame did not lead to greater parental involvement on the same day, it did cause parents to spend more time with their kids the next day.

That makes sense to Wang. “Shame isn’t an emotion that you automatically react to,” she says. “You mull it over, you ruminate, and those emotions sink in. It takes time to process and respond to.”

How to Help Working Parents Cope with Shame

Interestingly, across all three studies, gender did not affect the researchers’ findings—there was no difference between how moms and dads responded to parental-identity threat. “Of course, there are still huge discrepancies for working parents by gender,” Wang says, in terms of what is expected of them at work and at home. “But our findings show that all genders are affected by this threat. That’s something we have to consider as a society. Everybody feels stressed out.”

The results suggest that it would be wise for organizations to understand the psychological challenges working parents face, and try to reduce feelings of shame among those employees. In addition to being careful in how they speak to and about working parents, managers can send the message that work and parenting aren’t in conflict by offering lots of schedule flexibility.

For working parents themselves, Wang prescribes a hearty dose of self-compassion. When something comes up at work that takes you away from family life, you can short-circuit the shame cycle by not viewing the conflict as an indictment of your parenting. “You can reappraise it as, ‘Hey, this is just something that happens.’ Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Featured Faculty

Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations; Executive Director of Kellogg's Dispute Resolution and Research Center

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Greenbaum, Rebecca, Yingli Deng, Marcus Butts, Cynthia Wang, and Alexis Smith. 2021. “Managing My Shame: Examining the Effect of Parental Identity Threat and Emotional Stability on Work Productivity and Investment in Parenting.” Journal of Applied Psychology.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
    “Spillover” from certain coworkers can boost our productivity—or jeopardize our employment.
    The spillover effect in offices impacts workers in close physical proximity.
  2. 5 Tips for Growing as a Leader without Burning Yourself Out
    A leadership coach and former CEO on how to take a holistic approach to your career.
    father picking up kids from school
  3. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  4. 2 Factors Will Determine How Much AI Transforms Our Economy
    They’ll also dictate how workers stand to fare.
    robot waiter serves couple in restaurant
  5. Podcast: How to Discuss Poor Performance with Your Employee
    Giving negative feedback is not easy, but such critiques can be meaningful for both parties if you use the right roadmap. Get advice on this episode of The Insightful Leader.
  6. What Should Leaders Make of the Latest AI?
    As ChatGPT flaunts its creative capabilities, two experts discuss the promise and pitfalls of our coexistence with machines.
    person working on computer next to computer working at a computer
  7. Today’s Gig Workers Are Subject to Endless Experimentation
    “It raises the question, do we want to be a society where experimentation is just the norm?”
    gig worker at computer with three scientists studying them through a window
  8. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  9. How to Make Inclusivity More Than Just an Office Buzzword
    Tips for turning good intentions into actions.
    A group of coworkers sit in various chairs.
  10. China’s Youth Unemployment Problem
    If the record-breaking joblessness persists, as seems likely, China will have an even harder time supporting its rapidly aging population.
    college graduate standing before Chinese flag
  11. Will AI Kill Human Creativity?
    What Fake Drake tells us about what’s ahead.
    Rockstars await a job interview.
  12. Why Are We So Quick to Borrow When the Value of Our Home Rises?
    The reason isn’t as simple as just feeling wealthier.
    A homeowner uses the value of their home to buy things.
  13. Take 5: Research-Backed Tips for Scheduling Your Day
    Kellogg faculty offer ideas for working smarter and not harder.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  14. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  15. How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again
    Don’t give up on checked-out team members. Try these strategies instead.
    CEO cheering on team with pom-poms
  16. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  17. The Second-Mover Advantage
    A primer on how late-entering companies can compete with pioneers.
  18. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
More in Organizations