Ever wondered why you still overwork despite labour laws, corporate wellness schemes, employee reps and a caring boss? Prof. Ioana Lupu, ESSEC Business School, tackles the work-life balance question through a new lens – the influence of our parents on our beliefs and working behaviours.
Work-Life Balance and our parents’ influence, by Professor Ioana Lupu. Originally published in HBR under the title Your Feelings About Work-Life Balance Are Shaped by What You Saw Your Parents Do. Related research: When the past comes back to haunt you: The enduring influence of upbringing on the work–family decisions of professional parentsby Ioana Lupu, Crawford Spence, Laura Empson, Human Relations, SAGE.
We’re obsessed with work-life balance. There’s no shortage of research, articles, and self-help books trying to help us find and restore a balance between our work and non-work lives. However, most of the discussion and advice tends to focus on changing individual career decisions, or team expectations, or organizational contexts. But what if other factors mattered as well?
In my research published in Human Relations, I’ve found that our upbringing can have an enduring influence on our work and career decisions — and that what we subconsciously learn from our parents plays an important role in how we think about and manage work-life balance.
Conducting 148 in-depth interviews with 78 parents who work in the London offices of two global law and accounting firms, I spoke with an equal number of men and women, most of whom were between 30 and 50 years old and were in either middle or senior management roles. The majority of senior men in our study had stay-at-home spouses, but this was rarely the case for our female participants. Most participants were raised in middle-class families and typically had had a stay-at-home mother and a breadwinner father.
Our study found that people are hardly blank slates when they join the workforce; their beliefs and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often shaped early on, simply by observing their parents’ behaviors and attitudes. These dispositions become deeply ingrained, part of daily routines, and thus taken for granted.
According to our research, most individuals fall into one of four categories:
- They willingly adopt their parents’ model of work-life balance
- They unintentionally adopt their parents’ model
- They willingly reject their parents’ model. Or
- They unintentionally reject their parents’ model. Interestingly, although the majority of individuals belong to one of these four categories, there are a limited number who straddle more than one category.
Work-life Balance: Reproducing the Parental Model
Most of the men in our study found themselves having a work-life balance similar to their parents’ – specifically their fathers’. The majority of them were the only or primary breadwinner in their families.
Participants who grew up in families where the father was the breadwinner and worked very long hours often ended up, willingly or not, internalizing this work ethic. The effect was stronger for men, because while both parents served as role models for participants’ careers, in all my interviews, men and women designated their same-sex parent as the most important influence on their work-life balance choices. (For example, fathers’ work patterns appeared to have very little influence on their daughters’.)
Frank, a senior manager in a global audit firm, and a willing reproducer of his parents’ model, recounted how he regularly saw his father working very long hours:
I saw my father coming back late every day on the weekdays, and actually he continued working on the weekends…. So I guess that’s why…I have never seen working over the weekend as something extraordinary, because that is something that I have seen all my life at home.
Similarly, Jack, a partner in a global law firm, learned from his father how to work “hard enough”:
I had a role model of a father who just worked all the time he could. So, long hours are not just familiar to me, but they are my sense of what working hard enough looks like.
Having seen their parents work hard throughout their childhood and adolescence, these professionals were prone to consider hard work as normal. They were able to rationalize even compulsive work behaviors that had negative consequences for their family life. Even when they wanted to act differently, this disposition continued to shape their actions. For instance, Jack, a father of two children, lamented that he somehow forgot the promise he made to himself to be a more involved parent than his father was. This pattern was common among our male participants.
Jack was also similar to his father in that he had a stay-at-home wife. Like most of the male senior managers we talked to, reproducing this traditional family model led Jack to engage in gendered stereotypical behavior, such as being a “weekend father,” even when he consciously found this regrettable:
My biggest regret is that I regarded it as completely inevitable that I will work [very long hours and] every weekend…. And so undoubtedly there are things that maybe I would have done with the kids if I’d be thinking, “How shall I use this time to do something with the kids?”
Moreover, his upbringing conditioned him to perceive this model as the only one that could work for him, and made it difficult for him to imagine an alternative mode of functioning.
Some of the female participants who had working mothers also willingly adopted their career commitment. These women were less conflicted about their work-family responsibilities and managed to cope better with the guilt of being committed to their careers. For instance, Cat, a senior manager in a global audit firm, had always worked full-time and was the main breadwinner:
Growing up, my parents both worked…and during that time we had a full-time nanny at the house, and what I remember is that having a nanny was great. I don’t remember being distant from my parents or missing them or them not being around. I remember being totally normal, so I’ve never believed that being a working parent is a bad thing. I guess that’s probably influenced a lot of why, right now, I think it’s okay for me to be at work.
Not all women felt the same about their working mothers; some regarded them as negative role models. This was the case for Anne, a manager in a Big 4 firm:
[My mum] didn’t miss work…. She was always willing to work long hours even though it was at the expense of her family. I think somehow initially I took that on as well — I didn’t want to miss work at whatever cost. My son was sick and I’d get somebody to stay with him because I had to be at work.
Anne expressed regrets about how her work negatively affected her relationship with her own children, just as her mother’s work affected their relationship. Yet, at the time I encountered her, she had not managed to bring herself to make a substantial change in her work-life balance, though she had given herself a deadline to reduce the number of hours worked (which for the last few months was around 70 hours per week).
Despite our participants telling us they consciously aspired to have a more balanced life, many continued to reproduce an ethos of hard work and sacrificing family life — even when they had the explicit goal of not following in their parents’ footsteps. This suggests that the attitudes formed during upbringing can shape people’s choices and end up reproducing the status quo. It also suggests that rational decisions play only one part in work-family choices and that unconscious and embodied dispositions play a role as well.
Work-life Balance: Discontinuing the Parental Model
In fewer cases, participants reported rejecting their parents’ approach toward work-life balance. Usually, this was intentional, but in some cases participants ended up distancing themselves from their parents’ model despite their desire for continuity.
Typically, participants would start questioning the influence of their parents on their work-life behaviors after reflecting on perceived failures and regrets or after traumatic events, such as someone close to them dying or getting sick. Then they’d make significant changes to their lives, such as refusing to work weekends, going part-time, or even leaving their firms for an environment with more controllable hours.
There are two subgroups that were well represented among our participants: women who wanted to distance themselves from excessively career-focused mothers and women who wanted to distance themselves from regretful stay-at-home mothers.
As an example of the first subgroup, Christa, a partner in a global law firm who reduced her working hours after returning from maternity leave and envisaged stepping down in order to be a more involved mother, expressed this conflict quite lucidly:
My mum was a working mum. When I was at school at a very young age, I used to be quite upset that I had a child-minder that picked me up from school and I didn’t have my own mum outside the school gates like a lot of my friends did. And it’s only now that I’ve started rethinking 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?
The second subgroup is represented by women who willingly distanced themselves from their mothers who stayed at home reluctantly. These mothers instilled in their daughters a desire to be independent and encouraged them to have a career so as not to repeat their own mistakes. This is the case for Sylvia, a director in a global audit firm:
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.
Unlike many of the men from our study, who felt trapped in traditional family models where they were the breadwinner while their spouse cared for the children, women in dual career couples, such as Anne, felt they could more easily afford the “luxury” of reducing their work involvement in order to have a better work-life balance. Thus we see how people in traditional family models have less flexibility to alter initial work-family choices than dual-career couples who report more equally sharing the child-caring responsibilities.
In sum, the impediments to greater work-life balance and satisfaction lie not only in organizations and society but also within individuals themselves through learned dispositions. This research should raise awareness of the gap that often exists between conscious ambitions related to career and parenting and unconscious attitudes and expectations. If we want to reach our full potential, we have to be aware of how who we are has been shaped by our earliest experiences.
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- Read a related article Whatever it takes: The impact of long working hours on employees.
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