Getting to resilience: the long-term toll of working parenthood

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and being a working parent can be a recipe for stress, anxiety and exhaustion so how do you keep on keeping on?

Tired woman pouring coffee


Having a baby is a huge physical challenge, but the mental one can be harder. Even without the problems of post-natal depression and psychosis, which are at last receiving more attention, the sheer scale of adaptation, responsibility and logistics, often combined with poor sleep in the early days, and the multitude of ways these can be a greater challenge for some than for others can take a toll on anyone’s mental ‘resilience’.

And it’s no short term thing, either. Things change continually when you are a parent. The ground beneath your feet shifts with the different stages and circumstances. The move from babyhood to toddlers to schools, sibling dynamics, secondary school transfer, teenagedom, exam pressures, fears about safety, fears about health, etc, etc. The list is endless and constantly changing.

Throw into that the whole work dynamic – going back to work after months off, thinking about changing jobs, negotiating flexible working, changing jobs, logistics on steroids, potential discrimination, starting out on your own, digital presenteeism and much, much more – and every day can turn into a mental rollercoaster.

Planning ahead: theory and practice

So how do you prepare? There is a lot of advice out there. Usually in bulletpoint form and most of it based on stuff you could have figured out for yourself if you weren’t so completely sleep addled. One of the big ones with regard to logistics and just pacing yourself seems to be to plan ahead. It is good advice.

The problem is that parents are often so busy firefighting the stuff that is happening right now to plan even a second ahead and children often do no planning of their own so are wont to throw something in at the last minute – the need for food tech ingredients, the last-minute mention that they have detention or after school revision classes – throwing all the regular plans to the wind and meaning an 11th-hour scouring of the neighbourhood for leeks or the like before school drop-off.

Sitting down and talking things through with your partner, if you have one, is also a common tip. This is a great idea in theory, but making that time is often difficult when every conversation is interrupted by small people and your partner or you crash out as soon as everyone is in bed – or even before. For some people rigorous scheduling works wonders to address such problems; for others family life is more about riding with the chaos rather than treating family life like work and trying to control it.

So the secret is to find your own way – to find something that works for you and your family with all the different habits, personalities, work patterns, past history, proximity of relatives, family relations with relatives and so forth that are involved.

The bad news is that finding your own way can take a while and, of course, your own way needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changes in any of the above.

There will be difficult – maybe very, very difficult – patches along the way. Don’t measure yourself against others. Easy to say when we are surrounded by people who are keen to tell parents what they should and shouldn’t do. Only listen to the ones who listen to you, who offer proper support rather than just telling you that you need to do what they did. There is no one right way to do parenting. It will be challenging, it will draw on every part of who you are.

So, what helps?

Humour helps, enormously. Looking back at how far you have come, even it is only a few weeks, can give you the sense of achievement that just keeping on keeping on every day doesn’t necessarily. You will not be perfect. No-one is – and do children want perfect parents anyway?

Long-term goals are good for businesses, but in parenting terms long term can mean different things to different people. For some it can be getting through the next year; for others getting through the next week, the next day or the next hour.

Flexibility and problem solving are not just work issues for parents. They underpin every part of our lives. It’s mentally exhausting. It’s not some sort of weakness or special pleading to admit that.

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