Ep 223: Mastering Work/Life Balance

Episode Summary

Yael Shornbrun, author of Work, Parent, Thrive, joins us to talk about how working parents can make the most of their busy lives. We discuss the surprising benefits of working and parenting simultaneously, and explain how we can model a healthy work/life balance for their teens.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Raising teens can sometimes feel like a full time job…on top of the one we already have!  Handling the ups and downs of parenthood takes practically all the energy we have–adding an eight hour workday into the mix can be immensely overwhelming. 

However, for many parents, working and parenting at the same time is a necessary compromise. Doing both is no easy task, and often comes with lots of sacrifice, conflict and even guilt. 

But what if being both a parent and a member of the workforce could be mutually beneficial? What if, despite all the struggle, being a working parent might be the best of both worlds?

This week, we’re diving into how working parents can overcome the struggle and start thriving. We’re joined by Dr. Yael Schonbrun, psychologist, professor, podcaster and author of Work, Parent, Thrive! Yael is a working parent herself, and wanted to harness her knowledge as a psychologist to help parents change their perspective on work/life balance. 

In the episode, we’re discussing the ways that parenting can strengthen our career skills–and how our work experiences can make us better parents. Plus, how we can practice emotional management when the stress of life gets too overwhelming, and how we can model career success for teens.

Surprising Positives For Working Parents

Balancing work and kids is quite the conundrum, and it’s easy to get bogged down by the difficulty of it all. But there actually quite a few benefits to working and raising kids simultaneously, says Yael–benefits that many parents don’t even realize are there! 

In the episode, Yael breaks down the idea of skill transfer between our personal and professional lives. The patience, perseverance and empathy it takes to raise teens can be terrific traits to carry over into our work life, while the collaboration and consistency of our work life might benefit our parenting, she explains.

She also describes how parents can benefit from what she calls a “stress-buffering effect.” When the stress of work gets us down, spending time with kids is a great way to have a meaningful, fun escape. Similarly, when our kids are driving us crazy, we can head to the office or close the door to our home studio and use work as a way to distract us from the stress of parenting, she says. 

There are so many other benefits to working and parenting at the same time, and Yael and I get into them in the episode. So many of these benefits become clear when we choose to notice them, Yael explains, instead of focusing on the bad. 

Regardless, it’s hard to deny that work life balance can be a struggle–especially for parents–and sometimes all the stress can cause us to boil over. In our interview, Yael and I discuss how parents can practice emotional management when the going gets tough.

Mastering Emotional Management

In our interview, Yael and I talk a lot about values and how they can often be challenged when we’re at our lowest. During arguments with teens or triggering moments, we sometimes find ourselves saying things we don’t mean or acting out of spite. Even though we value kindness, patience and firm boundaries, those things can slip out the window when we’re riled up.

In the episode, Yael and I talk about how we can learn to act according to our values instead of letting our emotions get the better of us. She lays out certain “grounding techniques,” or ways to calm down when we’re upset. These are typically methods of slowing down our nervous system’s response to triggering situations, and can include everything from holding an ice cube to taking some time to journal.

We also delve into a deep discussion about guilt, and the ways in which it affects working parents. We often feel guilty when we can’t make it to a competition due to a work trip, or when we have to work late and can’t plan a family dinner. Many times, however, this guilt serves no good purpose, and simply drags us down. In the episode, Yael walks me through how parents can evaluate guilty thoughts and interpret whether or not they’re useful.

Emotional management can be an important way to model maturity to teens. In our interview, Yael and I are breaking down how working parents can also model career success to teens who are heading into adulthood.

Modeling Passion And Purpose

Although we typically hope teens will listen to our words, they’re more likely to pay attention to and emulate our actions. Kids who are still figuring out their career path might turn to parents to see an example of working adult life. If we want kids to see a positive example of professional development, we have to set one, says Yael.

Yael explains that we can label our work three different ways –as a job, a career and a calling. When we see our profession as simply a job, we often don’t attribute meaning to our work–which not only makes us less happy and productive, but sets an example to teens that work is just a miserable obligation.

 Viewing our work as a career is better, but embracing it as a calling is ideal. When we see our working life as a way to find purpose and passion, we’ll not only live more fulfilling lives, but show teens that they can do the same, Yael says.

Teaching kids to change their attitude towards school, extracurriculars, or part time jobs can be a great way to help them start a positive relationship with career development as well. In the episode, Yael and I talk about how she encouraged her own son to approach his studies with more enthusiasm by opening his mind up to the long-lasting benefits of academics.

Modeling career skills and emotional development helps prepare teens for the challenges of the adult world–just one of the many ways working parents can create harmony between their work life and their family life.

In the Episode….

My conversation with Yael was incredibly eye-opening. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • How stress can be beneficial
  • Why interruptions actually strengthen focus
  • How we can discover and define our values
  • Why labeling ourselves can be harmful

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Yael on her podcast, Psychologists Off the Clock or at yaelschonbrun.com. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Encourage teens to find meaning in school, work or extracurriculars:

“Whatever we do in life can be meaningful, and meaningfulness helps us to live a happier, more fulfilling life.”

Yael Schonbrun

2. Push teens to engage with academics:

(Members Only)

3. Comfort a stressed teen (1 of 2):

(Members Only)

4. Comfort a stressed teen (2 of 2):

(Members Only)

5. Encourage emotional management (1 of 2):

(Members Only)

6. Encourage emotional management (2 of 2):

(Members Only)

7. Apologize after an outburst

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Yael: Thank you so much for having me. I love your podcast and I’m really excited to chat with you today.

Andy: Oh, I’m excited too. I read through your book, which is called Work, Parent, Thrive, and I got to say it is jam packed.

Yael: I love that you’re holding the book in hand.

Andy: Oh yeah. I love the physical copy and for some reason I like to actually hold the book.

Yael: I’m trying to train my teenager to love paper, but he’s a little resistant.

Andy: So the topic of the book is really about how to juggle when you’re parenting and also working. And to me this is such a critical topic, especially as more and more people are working from home and it’s like how do you keep both of those things going? How do you have a career and find time and space to work on that, but also being present and therefore your family? It’s not easy.

Yael: Not easy, yeah. It’s a tall order, but there’s lots of ways to approach it and hopefully I offer a new framework, I think, because I do think that the dominant elements of this conversation, the modern conversation about working parenthood really emphasize how the two roles conflict. And I think parents of teenagers have a lot of challenge with this because in some ways your child needs you less and in some ways they need you a lot more. In fact, [inaudible 00:01:27] talks a lot about this in her writing that she actually drew back on her career when her kids were teenagers because the needs seemed greater than when the kids were younger.

But the way that I think about it is from an enhancement perspective that rather than a scarcity model where we think that if you’re involved in one role that you’re taking away from the other, I like to think about that two roles feed each other and in fact there’s a lot of science to back this idea up. It is true that we have finite time and finite energy and also a truth that there are ways that we can have our roles benefit each other more and knowing the science of how to do that empowers us to do it more effectively.

Andy: That sounds really positive. I think it’s easy to get into that mindset. Well, now we have less hours, we’re trying to cram two things into the same amount of time and compared to someone who’s just gets to focus on parenting or just gets to focus on work. Well, doing both at the same time, doesn’t mean you’re always going to be frazzled and stretched thin and feel like you’re stressed out and running around from one thing to the next and never have any free time, right?

Yael: Totally. Yeah. That’s often the way that we think about it. And again, there’s some truth to it, but there are other ways to think about it and approach it. And in fact, shifting your mindset really empowers you. And I’ll say I identify three distinct pathways that the two roles can enrich each other. So I’ll talk you through them. So the first path is this idea of skill transfer. So if you’re parenting a teen, you’re going to learn a lot of patience, a lot of perspective taking, a lot of willingness to tolerate grumpy people who are going through a lot of developmental changes, a lot of criticism. And actually those are really important interpersonal skills to be able to roll with the punches, to have patience, to have compassion even when it’s hard to do so. And those skills feed back in very helpful ways to the workplace.

Same goes for the workplace, you’re often learning skills. You’re a podcaster so you ask interesting questions, you deal with technology, probably you have some guests that are difficult to talk to. And guess what? Those skills feed very well back into the parenting role. So in all sorts of ways we can think about the skills that we develop in each role as we’re stepping away from one, we’re not just taking away from it, we’re also developing something that can later feed back in helpful ways. The second pathway is what I call the stress buffering effect. So this is the idea that when we have a stressful experience in one role, we can counterbalance it with positive experiences in the other. So teenagers can be hard and so if you’re having a tough time in your relationship with them, you can go to work and have a positive experience with your colleague.

But teenagers can also be awesome. So if you’re having a hard time at work, you can go do something fun with your awesome teen because teens are so funny and interesting. And if you can counterbalance a tough day at work with a positive experience with your kid, that gives you an opportunity to manage the stress that you have that day more effectively. The final path is what I call the additive effect. So there’s lots of different ways that psychologists define happiness, meaning experiences of pleasure. But the important way that I want to talk about is experiences of meaning and purpose.

And in fact, what we know from psychological research is that meaning and purpose helps us to feel happiness in a more enduring way than experiences of pleasure. And so that purpose, that sense of meaning is really important in a happy life well lived. And when we have more roles that we’re involved in, we have a better opportunity to access meaning and purpose on any given day and certainly over the course of our life. And especially because as your parenting teens and they’re getting more independent, that can feel like your meaning and purpose as a parent is walking away and pushing you away. And if you have other roles where you can sink into and say, “Well, I’m still doing things that matter a lot to me or to the community,” then it can, again, give you access to this experience that may become less reliable as your teen grows up.

Andy: Oh yeah, that’s so important, especially on those days where, “Worst parent in the world and I can’t believe this and I never want to talk to you again.” It really helps to have those other roles that can buffer us and give us meaning.

Yael: Yeah, absolutely.

Andy: Wow, you make it sound great.

Yael: We should all working parent, it’s so easy.

Andy: Everyone should go out and get another job. And if you don’t have one yet, have two. Great.

Yael: Well, I will say that my byline is I’m not a natural optimist, but I’m a dedicated optimist. So I work pretty hard to be positive, but there are realities. Working parenthood in and of itself, that’s hard stuff. Working is hard and you combine the two and it is hard. So I don’t mean to suggest that it’s all roses and sunshine, but there are ways to approach it that can work better where we can be more successful, more effective, and that we can feel happier as we go through the journey. And I think again, psychology and social science really helps us to do that more effectively.

Andy: One thing you talk about in the beginning of the book that I really love, we talk a lot about values on the podcast and your values as a parent and you get more specific about values as a working parent and how to clarify those. Can you walk me through that? What does that look like and how do you recommend people start to gain clarity on that?

Yael: Yeah, absolutely. So I practice an evidence based treatment called acceptance and commitment therapy. And it has six core processes, but one of them is values clarification. And let me first just define values. So values in acceptance and commitment therapy, maybe other people define them differently, but we define them as a quality of action, a way that we want to show up in the world. And that’s distinct from a goal. So if you think about the metaphor, this is a common metaphor in acceptance and commitment therapy, but think about the metaphor of climbing a mountain. So the destination, the goal is to get to the top of the mountain, but values are a description of how you take the journey. So you can decide, “I want to take the journey slowly and really enjoy the nature,” or you can say, “I’d like to take the value in a way that’s really good for my health and get my heart rate up.”

You can take the value with a friend and you can be silent with them or you can take the value in like you can take the journey with a friend and be chatting the whole time and connecting verbally. So values describe how you take the journey. Now values are also context dependent. So they shift if things around you shift or inside of you for that matter. So if a storm comes up all of a sudden and you had been trying to get a workout and really pushing yourself to get up the mountain, you might shift your value to getting a good workout from getting a good workout to self-protection and find shelter or turn back down the mountain. So values are really important and they help decide how we want to move through the thornier patches of life. And certainly parenthood and working parenthood has lots of thorny patches. And so you don’t get to choose the weather, but you can choose what value you are connecting to guide how you respond to the weather, the metaphorical weather.

I walk people through a variety of exercises to clarify values in my therapy office. I see patients in my therapy office and also in the book. And there’s lots of ways that you can do it, but one of my favorite ones is to think forward 30 years and imagine your older self looking back on your current self and ask yourself what qualities of actions, what ways of being would make you most proud. So for example, if your teenager is calling you the worst parent in the world, what would make you most proud in how you respond to your teen in that moment? So it might be calm and compassionate, or it might be firm and boundaried and there’s not really a wrong value, it’s really about what you want to embody in that moment. And clarifying that helps to give you a compass for your behavior that is different than your emotions might guide, right?

Because if your teenager is telling you, you suck, your emotions might be defensiveness or anger. And that would lead to a defensive or angry action which you might then feel ashamed of because it doesn’t represent how you most want to show up in the world. Whereas allowing your values to guide, it means not acting on your emotions and instead acting in this different way which can be uncomfortable, but it’s so empowering to say, “Okay, I was feeling super angry but I stayed calm and firm and didn’t get activated or triggered in this moment and that’s something that I can be proud of.” Again, it’s not comfortable, but it’s like how you most want to show up in that moment. Does that make sense?

Andy: Oh yeah. And I love that projecting into the future and looking back, it seems to add so much clarity because in the moment, when you’re feeling emotional and you’re just reacting, it’s like, well, just whatever comes out and whatever happens. But if you’re really, once you’ve calmed down and gained some perspective and you’re looking back on something, it seems like they say hindsight is 2020. It feels like that kind of exercise really helps you to get clarity. And then when you do come in those situations, if you’ve thought through it like that, yeah, it gives you something to grab onto or to anchor yourself a little bit. Yeah.

Yael: Exactly. Yeah, it’s like a compass that you can use in the storm where you can’t see very clearly and exactly as you’re saying, it’s very helpful to think it through at a different time when you’re not emotionally activated, when you’re not right in the middle of the storm. And then have some clarity on the value and maybe also a mantra that you can latch onto, because there’s so much chaos. So you can think to yourself, common assertive or boundary or firm, a word that can cue you. This is the value and I’m going to allow that to help me determine my behavior, my choices and behavior in that moment.

Andy: Oh, I like that. And that just lets you keep reminding yourself about how you want to show up. You talked about the three paths and I really liked this idea of enrichment and how work and family can enrich each other. And you have some ideas in here about how we can get better at recognizing those things. And I guess questions we can ask ourselves, reflections we can do, maybe journaling or just thinking or talking with other parents or with partners, how can we get some more clarity on looking for those? I think of it also how gratitude and how when we just start looking for things to be grateful for, we can find them. And so this really struck me as like you were talking about, shifting our mindset that if we start getting conscious about looking for places where our work and our family life are actually enriching each other, then I don’t know, then we’ll just start to notice those more, focus on those more. How do we do that?

Yael: Yeah. Well, I love that you’re bringing up the analogy of the gratitude exercise. There’s so much research on gratitude exercises that when we actively look for things to be grateful for, it makes it much more apparent all the things that we can be grateful for. And what we know about the brain is that we’re negatively biased, we’re more tuned into negative cues and there is good evolutionary reasons for that, right? It’s much more important to keep yourself safe from the saber-toothed tiger than to enjoy your banana. So that’s a silly example, but it makes sense that we’re more tuned into negative cues and that our memory is going to call up the negative things much more easily. And so in order to counteract that brain wiring that we have that was really adaptive in pre-modern times, we can get very proactive about looking for the positive.

So it can work with gratitude exercises, it can also work with work family enrichment. So you can actively ask yourself, in what ways did my work help me parent? Write those down. You can write them down a gratitude exercise on a daily basis or you could just keep them in a journal. And then when tough times arise, you can look back on that page that has the evidence of the ways that your work helped your parenting. And same goes, how did my parenting help my work? And how did the two of them help me to have a richer, more interesting life? It’s tapping into that additive effect. One thing that I’ll just take note of is that I did many dozens of interviews for this book and I wasn’t actively seeking to have interviews be any kind of an intervention. I was really just curious to ask people who were working parents, in what ways do you see these roles feeding each other in positive ways? And because I was actively looking for it, very few people have been asked this question.

It ended up being this mini intervention where people would be like, “I had never thought about that. They really do help each other. My work really does make me parent better, my parenting really does help me to work more strategically. That’s so cool.” And a number of times, like weeks later, people would contact me and say, “It really stuck with me. It’s changed the framework that I have.” And so my overarching goal for this book is that it helps people shift their mindset from a strictly work family conflict mindset to a work family enrichment mindset where they’re just more tuned in and aware of the benefits that roles can offer each other. Like the gratitude exercise, it becomes this active practice where you’re just really noticing all the ways that enrichment happens that were outside of your conscious awareness before and then you get to enjoy it, which is really lovely.

Andy: I think that’s really profound and in so many ways, you find more of what you’re looking for. And if we’re looking for ways that these two parts of our lives really feed each other and enrich each other, we’ll find them. Whereas if we’re constantly looking for ways that they conflict and cause stress, then we’ll find those too. So it’s really cool.

Yael: Yeah. I think there’s actually interesting ways that both are true at the same time. So for example, if you get interrupted by your kid while you’re working, that’s frustrating because they interrupted your workflow and that’s a bummer for your work. And at the same time, what we know from research on interruptions, that interruption actually offers an opportunity to refresh your work battery and to have an opportunity to have your creative outside of conscious awareness processes, get into action, help your work.

And we also know from happiness research, that interruptions help us enjoy pleasurable experiences for longer. So if you’re like, I don’t know, eating cookies with your kids and then you got to go into work, the next time you eat cookies, you’ll enjoy it more than if you had sat there and eaten cookies for two hours without pause.

Andy: Oh, interesting.

Yael: There’s all these kind of clever ways that we can actually do it both. This is hard and it has benefit and it makes handlings tolerating the hard part a little easier and it makes accessing the gifts a little more possible and we can even learn to amplify those gifts. And so that’s again what I’m trying to teach people with this book.

Andy: Wow, I like that. Yeah, those sound really good. We should tell our boss to feel free to call us at home and interrupt our cookie eating anytime. No, really it’s good. It helps me. I appreciate it.

Yael: It’s like a funny thing, some of the research is done on television watching that when there are commercial interruptions, it actually sustains your enjoyment. It doesn’t feel like it, but because it resets your happiness points. Commercials actually help you to enjoy. So doing a Netflix binge where you watch the entire season in one night, you feel kind of crummy and you don’t love the last episode as much as you love the first one. So it’s interesting. It’s useful to interrupt your own pleasure and take opportunities for your two roles to interrupt each other and really appreciate the heck out of it because it offers a benefit.

Andy: Sometimes it needs to save us from ourselves a little bit.

Yael: Totally, totally. Yeah. Otherwise, they are hard to interrupt ourselves.

Andy: Well, the next episode just starts playing automatically.

Yael: I know. They make it hard not to interrupt.

Andy: And the next cookie’s just right there, looks so soft and delicious. You also talk in the book about labels and noticing the labels that we’re putting on ourselves or on our relationship between work and parenting. And I think labels are so profound and in so many ways, and we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about labels that we might put on our teenager, watching out for that. But you make a really interesting casing here for looking at labels in terms of our working parenthood. What do those look like and how do we start to identify them and maybe switch to more helpful or empowering labels?

Yael: Yeah, I love that you talk about attaching labels to teens. I mean, teens really do get a bad rap like what child doesn’t have some challenge with them. But teens are so interesting and fun and I don’t know, they’re just growing into their own little people. So here’s the issue with labels. Let me pause myself on my diatribe about the awesomeness of teens, I guess not diatribe, but my excitement about teens and say that what happens with labels is that they can be very rigid. And so when you think about the fixed mindset labels versus the growth mindset labels, fixed mindset labels tend to be very narrow, black and white kinds of labels. So teens are always difficult or working parenthood is always impossible or working parents can never have it all or working parents are always going to be falling short.

So these kind of labels are short phrases that suggest that things just are the way they are and they can’t change their fixed and our mind tends to fuse to them. So we start to believe that it’s true, and the more that we say it, the more true we believe it to be. And this is why working with our labels is so helpful, because sometimes we don’t even notice what we’re labeling. It’s like breathing in air, we’re not paying attention, we’re just doing it and we’re doing it without conscious awareness. This is where meditation comes in and where meditative practices around our mind’s activity can be really helpful because we can begin to notice like, “Oh, we’re breathing. Oh, we’re labeling.” And once we notice, once we say, “Oh, I’m having the thought that my teen is impossible or that working parenthood is miserable,” I can make a choice.

And I can ask myself, how helpful is that label in connecting me the kind of person that I want to be? In helping me to build the kind of life that I want to build? Then we get into values. And we can ask ourselves, is it interfering with me living in line with my values? So for example, when I think to myself, my teen is impossible, how does that impact how I show up as a parent when I think to myself working parenthood is the worst? How does that impact how I show up to my two roles? And so what I suggest is when you notice those black and white rigid kinds of labels, to begin to do this practice that acceptance and commitment therapy calls diffusions, like unhooking, it can be as simple as saying, “I’m having the thought that,” or, “I’m labeling myself as,” or, “I’m looking at my teen and calling him or her,” whatever the label is, and sort of simple prefix I’m having the thought or I’m labeling with can help you create just a tiny bit of distance.

It helps you notice. My mind is creating these words and I can buy into them and it has an impact, or I can turn to a different direction and that can have an impact. What do I want to do here? And so when you notice those really rigid black and white labels, it can be very helpful to start to generate alternatives that you can turn towards that are more enrichment oriented work, family enrichment oriented. So things like my teen is a very interesting person with pros and cons and challenges and delights, or working parenthood is hard at times and also offers a whole host of gifts and intrigue and variety that can be really enriching or rather than this is impossible, this is hard and challenging, I’m going to rise to the occasion kind of a thing.

So words or phrases that are a little bit more workable that don’t get you stuck when you notice that labels or phrases are getting you stuck, right? You don’t have to work with everything. If it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem. The issue is if you’re finding yourself routinely dropping into these very rigid labels that are interfering with showing up in line with your values, that’s when you want to start to do this kind of work.


About Yael Schonbrun

Yael Schonbrun, Ph.D., is the author of Work, Parent, Thrive.

Yael is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University. Her academic research explores the intersection between relationship problems and mental health conditions. She has contributed chapters to several books and has authored dozens of scientific articles.

She also co-hosts the podcast Psychologists Off the Clock, where she talks about the science and practice of living well.

Yael’s writing on work, parenting, and relationships has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Greater Good Science Center, Behavioral Scientist, Kveller, Lilith Magazine, The Wise Brain Bulletin, Psychology Today, and Motherly

Yael lives outside of Boston with her husband and three kids.

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Find her on Twitter, and LinkedIn.