What America Asks of Working Parents Is Impossible

More and more, the goals of being a dedicated employee and being a dedicated parent seem to be in conflict.

Getty / The Atlantic

If managing the demands of working and parenting in the 21st century feels impossible, Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian argue, that’s because the ideals that many working parents subscribe to are impossible to fulfill.

Three core myths animate much of American life, according to Beckman and Mazmanian, professors at the University of Southern California and UC Irvine, respectively. The first myth, they explain in their recent book, Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, is that of the “ideal worker,” who “has no competing obligations that might get in the way of total devotion to the workplace.” The second is that of the “perfect parent,” who “always puts family first.” And the third is that of the “ultimate body,” which is cultivated through diligent dieting and exercise, and doesn’t deteriorate with age. “Achieving even one of these myths would be impossible,” Mazmanian told me in an interview, “but achieving all three is ludicrous.”

And yet that’s what many of the working parents featured in Beckman and Mazmanian’s book strive for anyway. The two researchers, with help from a graduate student, observed the daily lives of nine middle- to upper-income families in Southern California over the course of several weeks, noting how smartphones, tablets, and laptops both connected people and drained their time and energy. Mazmanian and Beckman conclude that the always-on nature of today’s communication technologies doesn’t just make work more demanding—a familiar critique by now—but also adds a layer of stress to family life and makes Americans’ deepest aspirations ever more difficult to realize.

I recently spoke with Mazmanian about these ideas and how the pandemic changes them. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.

Joe Pinsker: People probably get how technology and constant connectivity make office work stressful, but how do those things make parenting more stressful too?

Melissa Mazmanian: One thing about the tools we use, from basic texting to GPS monitoring of each other’s phones, is that when we have the capacity to stay constantly connected with each other, it’s really hard to just ignore that.

Right now my daughter is in middle school, and she’s taking this intensive math summer-school class, and like three times a day—I’m not exaggerating—I get emails saying, you know, “Your daughter turned in an assignment” or “Your daughter’s quiz has been graded.” And I have to actively tell myself that I’m not going to click on those emails, because I want her to learn to manage her schoolwork. If I micro-monitor every exam and come to her and say, “I see you got an eight out of 10—what happened with those two points?” that’s not the kind of educational experience I want her to have. But it’s actually quite hard to ignore those emails, just because they’re there.

You see this in all kinds of ways. We have the ability to track our children’s phones, but the questions are: How much should I track? Is it for their safety? Is it just for my peace of mind? Do I actually have a clearer sense of their safety if I know where the blue dot is on a map?

Pinsker: In the book, you describe a “spiral of expectations” that starts when technology gives people another way to be available and in touch. Can you briefly explain that spiral?

Mazmanian: The first step is that you get a new tool, and you choose to use it in a way that enhances your sense of self, or what’s important to you—if you think it’s important to be a good colleague, or to be a good parent, you’re going to try to use the tool to do that. If society frames a good colleague as someone who’s responsive, you’re going to use the tool to be more responsive.

At first, that could really make you feel on top of things, like you’re the best colleague around. I studied BlackBerries very early on, in the early 2000s, when they were new and special, and it was really interesting: People who got them at that time really did feel that they allowed them to be better at their jobs, because they had this capacity to be responsive in a way that everyone around them wasn’t.

Well, fast-forward a few years, and these things become basic expectations. That can undermine the initial motivation in some really interesting ways: Now if I don’t respond to an email, I’m considered a bad colleague. As a society, we assume that everyone has seen whatever message we just sent, and therefore they’re making an active choice not to respond. I think it’s draining to be this new kind of ideal worker, and this new kind of perfect parent, because so much more is expected of us.

Pinsker: It seems like an important point in that spiral—a point where a lot of problems start—is when people conflate responsiveness with care and dedication.

Mazmanian: Absolutely. This happens in the workplace, but also among families and among friends. If a friend texts me and I don’t text back right away, that could be interpreted as a lack of care for that person. The idea that we’re at each other’s beck and call—that the way you show dedication and respect is through being willing to be constantly available—is an interesting evolution of what it means to love and care.

This is something that we would all benefit from pushing back on. When you have a shared norm like this, one person can’t choose not to do it, especially in situations with strong power dynamics, like the workplace. So this is something we need to think about as collectives—as families, as friends, as co-workers. We need to create norms saying, Okay, how quickly do we need to get back to each other? And what does it mean when I don’t respond?

Pinsker: One thing you mentioned in passing in the book was the idea of setting up auto-response text messages for a wide range of situations. Some people already have their phones set up to send texts like “I can’t talk right now because I’m driving,” but maybe, you suggest, we could have texts like that for when we’re working, or exercising, or dropping our kids off at ballet. One thing that occurred to me is that it might be annoying, or even humblebraggy, if your phone automatically told someone, “I can’t be bothered right now because I’m 40 minutes into my hot-yoga session. Do you think this idea might actually work?

Mazmanian: What you’re getting at is that so much of our responsiveness and availability is political and relationship-driven—you have to worry about what signals you’re putting forward. Driving is kind of an easy one, because that’s thought of as a legitimate reason to not be available. Now, a lot of these other examples—like “I’m in my yoga class,” or “I’m watching a movie,” or “I’m having some ‘me’ time”—those are trickier, because you are then signaling that that is more important than whatever someone is texting about. So maybe your pushback on these norms could come in the form of an auto-reply, or just telling people when they reach out, “I’m spending some time with my kids, and I’m not available right now.”

One of the fundamental things that came out of this book for me was the realization that many people assume that to be an ideal worker, work should be your only priority, and that to be a good parent, your kids should be your only priority. So much of our guilt comes from the idea that we have multiple priorities. It’s probably healthy to have multiple priorities, but that’s not what our myths valorize.

Pinsker: There’s this powerful little passage in the book where you imagine a world in which a worker of any gender could freely say things like “I have to leave early because my spouse has to work late tonight” or “I can’t meet on Tuesday afternoon because that’s my school pickup day for the carpool,” and not fear any repercussions or stigma. Do you have any hope that employers and managers might actually start promoting work environments like that?

Mazmanian: I do think that because ideal-worker norms very much benefit employers, they’re hard to break. It’s difficult for one company or group to feel like it can ratchet down its expectations when it’s competing with so many other organizations.

That said, I think it’s important to examine how dedication to work in terms of time and availability is not always related to productivity and profit. These myths don’t address the quality of work or your ability to focus and think deeply. It’s really hard to judge those things in many workplaces, so responsiveness and time spent online become these proxies for being a good worker. But you could imagine a culture in which, when someone’s working overtime, the people around them are like, “Well, what’s wrong with you if you didn’t get your work done during the workday?”

I’m super worried, by the way, about the generation of workers who have kids under the age of 10 during the pandemic. Because in the short term, co-workers can be like, “Oh, so cute, your kids are on the Zoom call!” and then try to make accommodations for that. But in the long term, those workers are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids. Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now? I really worry about that.

Pinsker: I’m interested in how the pandemic modifies some of the ideas in your book. For instance, there’s one worker who told you that in a performance review, it was brought up that his kids could be heard on a conference call. That is disturbing, but it also seems so at odds with what parenting and working remotely have been like in the past three months. Have norms shifted?

Mazmanian: We’ve actually been in touch with some of the people in the book in the last few weeks to see how they’re doing, and that theme has come up repeatedly: We as a society and in workplaces can no longer ignore that certain people are juggling a ton. One woman who’s been working remotely told us something like, “For the first few days, we used to apologize for the kids coming in to our Zoom calls, or the dog barking, and now we don’t. It can’t be any other way, so I no longer feel bad.”

Technology is serving a really interesting purpose now. Prior to all this, these communication tools allowed us to keep these worlds separate: Someone could slyly, under the table during a meeting, text their husband or their babysitter about needing to stay at work late. But the technologies that people are using now to work from a distance, like video calls, actually serve the opposite purpose. They’re stripping away these boundaries and revealing the complexity of life.

I think we should also note whose screens kids wander into. I’ve noticed it a lot more with mothers than fathers—that’s just my individual experience, but we should think about whether there are imbalances here that the screens are also revealing.

Pinsker: I feel like whenever I do an interview like this about some big structural problem, and I ask what individuals can plausibly do in response, the answer is to vote for people who support changing policies that govern work and family life. But I’m curious, if this is the world I’m faced with as a working parent, what can I do other than vote to make my life less bad?

Mazmanian: The bottom line is, I think there’s not going to be substantive change for parents unless we have paid-leave policies, universal high-quality pre-K, stuff like that. But there are things individual people can do—and I’ll add that you shouldn’t feel guilty if you can’t do them, because people already have a lot on their plate.

One thing I would say is: Rethink your priorities. Notice the myths that you’re subscribing to, and ask yourself, are they your values or society’s values, and how much do those two things align? How important do you feel it is to uphold some of those things, and how much do you feel like you want to push back and live your life differently? Within households, you can also have conversations about who’s doing what—what are the kinds of invisible work that are out there, and are we overburdening certain members of the family?

There’s also a lot that we can do to cultivate support for each other within communities. Get to know your neighbors. Hopefully you’ll like them—they may be in a similar boat and you can help each other out. It can help to find other people who are in the same stage of life as you, and parental circles can emerge around preschool pickup or from meet-ups at community centers. You’re not going to love everybody you meet, but when you’re able to create these networks, your life is going to be much easier.

Next is: If you are in a position of any sort of power in the workplace—and I recognize a lot of people aren’t—use it to set an example. I’m now a tenured professor, and when I leave to go do something family-related, I choose to tell students and colleagues that explicitly, so they can see that that’s a possibility. We are not going to create different norms if we don’t see those in power, especially men, enacting those norms themselves.

And then, yeah, vote.