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This story orginally published on April 13, 2022 and was updated on January 30, 2023.
Like many working moms, my workweek is calibrated with militaristic precision. I know exactly how long I can devote to each meeting and task and still have the bandwidth to do the afternoon soccer carpool, cook dinner, and help with homework at night. Which is why last Wednesday threw me off my game.
I was on a tight deadline, but my mind was preoccupied with my younger daughter. She’d told me about some social dynamics at school that I didn’t like the sound of, so I’d scheduled a parent-teacher conference. Over Zoom, her teachers and I had a constructive — albeit emotional — conversation.
Once that meeting finished, I had another over Zoom with my team, all while my deadline loomed. But the earlier conversation kept replaying in my head. I struggled through my afternoon, distracted and distraught. Needless to say, it was not my most productive workday.
Like 43 million other workers in this country, I’m navigating the demands of a full-time career and parenthood roughly three years into a pandemic. It’s always been a juggling act for my husband and me to keep track of our daughters’ school projects, sports schedules, and extracurriculars, while also doing our jobs and living our adult lives. But since the pandemic, we’re also attending to our kids’ social-emotional health in ways we hadn’t anticipated.
Apparently, we’re not alone. A large new survey by Pew Research Center has found that American parents are finding the job much more difficult than they anticipated with mental health concerns topping the list of parental worries. Roughly 40% of US parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point.
Meanwhile, a survey from last year conducted by Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that more than half of working parents said they’d missed work at least once a month and/or had their workdays interrupted to deal with their child’s mental health. Between 30% and 50% of parents also said in the survey that they were distracted at work by thoughts about their child’s well-being, perhaps owing to the mental-health challenges so many kids are facing.
“Parents have always experienced psychological interference during their workdays, but it’s harder now because the demands on them are greater,” said Stew Friedman, a professor emeritus at The Wharton School and an expert on work-life integration.
The upshot: Today’s working parents are under enormous pressure, and their stress has quickly gone from leaking into their professional life to crashing through the floodgates. It’s up to employers, experts say, to help working parents manage their priorities and offer flexibility to face this daunting reality.
“The world feels a lot scarier than it used to, and kids are experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress,” Friedman said. “As a parent, it requires so much of your mind — even when you’re working.”
What is feels like to be a working parent right now
The mental load of parenting — which refers to the invisible work involved in keeping children functioning and a household running — is immense. Research has shown that mothers tend to carry a particularly heavy burden.
Avni Patel Thompson, the founder and CEO of Milo, an app for working parents to tackle the challenge, identified four “roles” associated with mental load: human database, project manager, problem-solver, and chief memory maker.
The human database remembers the kids’ shoe sizes and the pediatrician’s phone number. The project manager keeps track of who needs to be at the doctors’ appointments and baseball practice. The problem-solver remembers to register for camp or school and drafts contingencies if plans backfire. And the chief memory maker — which sounds a little squishy but is arguably the most important, Patel Thompson said — creates moments of joy along the way.
“Time with your kids is super precious, and when you’re a working parent, you may only have a couple hours together every day,” she said. “There’s work involved in figuring out — how are you maximizing that quality time?”
“Our kids need more from us than perhaps they ever have,” said Leslie Forde, the founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Today, amid the pandemic, mental load may include a fifth fundamental: psychological ninja. Research suggests that children’s depression and anxiety rates might have doubled since the start of the pandemic. And in October, the US Preventive Services Task Force, a group of government-backed experts, advised that all children be screened for anxiety starting as young as 8 years old. It marks the first time the panel has made such a recommendation.
“As parents, we have to pay close attention and notice things, and then go through the iterative process of checking in with our children,” said Leslie Forde, the founder of Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, a consulting company that conducts research around maternal self-care and devises family-friendly policies for employers.
In March 2020, Forde embarked on a research project that now includes 2,700 parents, mainly moms, centered around the pandemic’s effect on people’s work and lives. One of her primary findings is that parents today have a fierce and deeply felt concern over the mental health and well-being of their children, in addition to their own needs for greater mental-health support.
Roughly two-thirds of parents of children under 18 met the criteria for burnout, according to research at Ohio State University published in May. Those results are based on a survey of nearly 1,300 parents.
“Our kids need more from us than perhaps they ever have,” Forde said. “And their needs are coming at a time when many parents, and especially moms, feel overwhelmed, fragile, and exhausted.”
How organizations and managers can help ease the burden
There are no easy solutions to such complex challenges. But experts say there are ways that organizations and individual managers can relieve some of the burden.
Recognizing the pressures that exist for working parents right now is a good starting point. After all, it’s not always easy for workers to bring up these issues. A Paychex survey of more than 1,000 full-time workers found that about half of all employees said they felt uncomfortable talking to their managers or supervisors about mental-health issues.
That’s why expanding employee benefits, such as mental-health resources, caregiving, and sick leave, is so critical, Forde said. Employers must also heighten the awareness around the available benefits.
A government panel recently advised that all children be screened for anxiety starting as young as 8 years.
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Managers should take the opportunity to rethink expectations around availability and workload.
“The pandemic is still a constant source of strain, and few parents have the mental energy to be ‘always on’ at work,” Forde said. “Employers need to be understanding when caregiving needs interrupt the workday and provide flexibility.”
Even if flexibility is not an official company policy, individual bosses can check in often and offer accommodations to help their working parents navigate demands on the home front, she said.
“Then if a child needs something — including emotional support or to be taken to a medical appointment, for instance — employees are more likely to have the time and resilience to be responsive and present for their families without feeling guilty,” Forde said.
There are ways that working parents can help themselves, too. Sarah Peck, the founder of Startup Parent, a community for women executives, recommended that working parents try to be more transparent about their needs at work and what their kids are going through. At the very least, she said, they need to build and maintain clear boundaries for when they’re available and when they’re not.
“Use calendar blocking and use it liberally,” she said. “And if you’re going to speak to your child’s teacher or therapist, give yourself time to regroup and recover. It’s going to be emotional.” (That’s a lesson I learned the hard way last Wednesday.)
Parents also need to cultivate their own support networks. These communities may include therapists and mental-health professionals, as well as fellow parents who understand the pressures.
Importantly, she said, working parents need to be self-compassionate.
“What our children need from us changes, and the roles we need to play for them change,” she said. “It’s not always something we can anticipate. Remember: You’re doing the best you can.”