Hey mom and dad – take a break from your PTA meeting and answer this question: “How can you be a devoted parent and model employee?”

Science says it’s better to choose one over the other.

The data comes from Northeastern University and the University of Georgia, where researchers say that putting too much pressure on excelling on two fronts can lead directly to parental stress and even a “full-blown identity crisis.”

The new study is titled “When Expectations Become Reality: Work-Family Image Management and Identity Adaption,” and was co-authored by Laura Little, a management professor at the University of Georgia and Jamie Ladge of Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

It leads off by underscoring the seriousness of the parent/employee issue, which can lead to “serious consequences.”

“Working parents often struggle to meet organizational expectations while also living up to societal and family norms related to ideal parenting,” the study notes. “The ideal worker is willing to work long hours, be ever available, and do whatever is asked while expectations for parents have become increasing child-centric and intense. Often, people are judged based on their competence in both of these domains simultaneously, rather than subject to unrelated evaluations of their work or family image.”

That leaves parents to struggle with what study researchers call the “work-family” image. Trying to find balance on that front is a severe uphill climb, as success in one area can signal failure in the other, Little says.

“In our experiences studying working parents, we heard a lot of people say things like, ‘He’s a great employee but he doesn’t know his children’s names,” Little notes. “Consistently, we would hear dual judgments that would seem intractably intertwined.”

“We wanted to find out if facing those kinds of judgments influence people’s behavior. It could be a mother who doesn’t want to stay late at work because she’s afraid people will think she’s a bad mother or a father who doesn’t want to take time off to see his kid’s game because people might assume he’s less dedicated to his career.”

Sorry parents, managing your image doesn’t work

Little and Ladge state that when working parents believe they’re not meeting society’s high standards in the parental home and in the workplace, they lean on “image-management behaviors” designed to alter others perception. This tactic can lead directly to stress or to a full-blown identity crisis, according to the study.

“The image discrepancy between who we think we need to be in the workplace versus who we are deep down can be very difficult to manage and workers develop a number of strategies to fit themselves more neatly into the boxes,” Little says. “And what we’re interested in is: In the process of creating this image, do we lose who we are?”

For example, workers who feel judged as bad parents may emphasize their home life while at the office in order to boost the impression that they’re good parents. This can be true even if the employee was already an involved parent and truly enjoys their office work.

This can lead to negative parental outcomes. The study cites a working dad who has grown so used to receiving accolades in the workplace, he starts to disengage from his parenting role. In this scenario, the study researchers say that parents can “settle in” to whichever identity – parent or corporate producer – offers the most rewards.

Finding a comfort zone

Parents, to their credit, seem fully aware of the pressure they face on the job and on the home front.

“Since becoming a mother, I’ve found that my quality of work has increased,” says Brittany Wise, a mom and founder of the website OurHomesMadeEasy.com. “I’m more focused now than ever when in the office.”

Wise says that at home with her family, she’s checking her email less and devoting more energy with my kids. That said, she does say that a home/work balance is hard to achieve.

“I dedicate specific time blocks for both home and work, something that is easier to accomplish,” she says. “For those who work traditional office roles, I’d love for more employers to embrace the quality of work over the quantity of face time in an office setting.”

Other parents say that they’re able to draw from their experiences in the corporate world and in the parental home – and deploy tools in one area that wind up working well in the other area.

“I would argue that parenting gives you a whole other skill set that can apply to any job,” says Cindy Hemming, a parenting blogger at Livingforthesunshine.com, an elementary school teacher and mother of two little girls. “From more empathy to the ability to multi-task to simply having more patience, parenting skills are invaluable to almost any job around. I know as an elementary school teacher, I have become a much better teacher after becoming a parent.”

Hemming would also argue that it’s hard to have parents feel fulfilled and function fully in workplaces that aren’t supportive of families. “Flexible hours, parenting leave and onsite daycares can all contribute to a healthy work-life, which can result in employees feeling more fulfilled and performing better at work.”

working parent
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Blending both work and home lives

Getting your kids more involved in what you do professionally can build a bridge between the family life and the working worlds, parents say.

“When I was figuring out how to make things balanced for my daughter, I learned to simply involve her,” says Mary Munez, owner of GoLucky Studios in Chicago, a marketing and event/film production company, and the mother or a pre-teen daughter. “It helped to bring her around to my job and get her excited.  She got to meet my coworkers and actors.  I took her to set as often as I could. Now she’s the one that pushes that I work because she loves that she gets to have all these cool experiences.”

“It also helped to show her the side of a hardworking minority woman in this business and the tribe of other hard-working women,” Munez says.

Choosing your own definition of “success”

Some parents aren’t satisfied with letting society dictate how they’re faring at home with the kids and in the workplace – that’s for them to decide.

“I define success as being compassionate, being loved deeply and loving people fully,” says Zak Garcia, former chief management officer of Bulletproof Coffee and current CMO of CBD Capital Group, an investment and operations company. “Success is also having the freedom to spend time with your family as you choose.”

Garcia says that, as a parent, financial success is important, but it is not about the number in the bank account. “It’s more about having the freedom to choose what I do with my time and who I spend it with,” he says. “Some of the wealthiest people in the world are emotionally bankrupt because they value money over everything else.”

To balance his work/parenting lives out, Garcia says he’s taking these steps to be a better dad when he’s away from the workforce:

  • Create scenarios in which there are no screens because screens make it easy for you to get distracted and pull you away from the present moment. “The world won’t end in an hour or two of not looking at your phone or computer,” Garcia says.
  • Give kids the consistent routine they need and want. “We practice this by having a family movie night every Friday,” he adds. “If things come up, we move it to another day in the week so it’s consistent and everyone has something to look forward to doing together.”
  • Plan a trip and provide your kids with experiences they will have forever. “My family plans a Fourth of July trip together every year and it’s a highlight of our summer,” he says. “Trips can be spontaneous; they don’t necessarily need to be planned. Just make sure to take them.”
  • Have one-on-one time with your children and allow them to interview you. This gives them the opportunity to feel in control and supported, while letting them learn about you. “They can pretend they are a talk show host or a journalist, which activates their imagination and lets them role-play,” Garcia states.

Preparation is the key

Parenting experts say that having a plan ahead of time – and deploying it efficiently – is the best path to a work/parenting life balance.

“You can balance work and parenting effectively with proper planning and discipline,” says Ivy Ge, a professional pharmacist and author of several parenting books.

The key is to be fully present when you switch roles, Ge says.

“Neither time nor wealth is the criteria of effectiveness,” she notes. “It’s the close parent-child relationship together with both parties’ sense of achievement in their respective roles.”