We teach our kids a lot about life by example, and according to a new study, that includes work-life balance too. Research from Queen Mary University of London suggests that early in their lives, kids watch—and learn from—how their parents prioritize work and family, but the way they apply what they've seen when they become adults may differ depending on whether just one or both parents worked.
In the study, researchers conducted a total of 148 interviews with 78 male and female employees from legal and accounting firms, dividing each interviewee into one of four categories, based on how much their approach to career and family balance purposely resembled that of their parents.
Their data showed that regardless of the parenting arrangement, women are much more conflicted when it comes to making work-life balance a priority. Men? Not so much.
Researchers found that women who had a stay-at-home mom and breadwinning dad tended to "work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers," says study co-author Ioana Lupu, Ph.D. A female participant in the study, who is a director of an accounting firm and has two children said, "My mum raised us ... She was always at home and to some extent I feel guilty for not giving my children the same because I feel she raised me well and she had control over the situation. I'm not there every day ... and I feel like I've failed them in a way because I leave them with somebody else. I sometimes think maybe I should be at home with them until they are a bit older." Male participants with this traditional parenting arrangement, meanwhile, didn't seem to be affected by the same kind of guilt.
Women with working moms experienced some guilt about work-life balance too, since they noticed their mothers weren't around as much and didn't want to repeat the same scenario with their kids. A female participant with one child, and is currently expecting, said, "I remember being picked up by a child-minder, and if I was ill, I'd be outsourced to whoever happened to be available at the time ... I hated it, I hated it, because I felt like I just wanted to be with my mum and dad. My mum never picked me up from school when I was at primary school, and then everybody else's mums would be there at the gate ... And it's only now that I've started re-thinking about that and thinking, well, isn't that going to be the same for [my son] if I'm working the way I am? He's going to have somebody picking him up from school and maybe he won't like that and is that what I want for my child?"
However, there was one type of woman who grew up with a working mom who didn't seem as torn: women who had stay-at-home moms who encouraged them early on to be ambitious and pursue careers. Says one woman with one child, "I do remember my mother always regretting she didn't have a job outside the home and that was something that influenced me and all my sisters. [...] She'd encourage us to find a career where we could work. She was quite academic herself, more educated than my father, but because of the nature of families and young children, she'd had to become this stay-at-home parent."
The study findings just go to show that our kids are watching us more closely than we think, and they serve as a good reminder that it's up to us to send them a good message about managing work and family.