‘Parents’ role key in shaping their kids’ attitudes to work life balance’

Approaches to work life balance may be shaped by childhood experiences in the family home, according to a new study.

The study, co-authored by Dr Ioana Lupu from Queen Mary University of London, suggests that beliefs and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often formed and shaped in childhood, particularly from watching parents.

“We are not blank slates when we join the workforce – many of our attitudes are already deeply engrained from childhood,” says co-author Dr Ioana Lupu. The study is published in the journal Human Relations.

The research is based on 148 interviews with 78 male and female employees from legal and accounting firms. Interviewees were sorted into four categories by the researchers: those who willingly reproducing parental model; those reproducing the parental model against their will; those willingly distancing from the parental model; and those distancing from the parental model against their will.

The study shows a number of differences between women and men who grew up in ‘traditional’ households where the father had the role of breadwinner while the mother took care of the house. Male participants who grew up in this kind of household tended to be unaffected by the guilt often associated with balancing work and family.

Women on the other hand were much more conflicted – they reported feeling torn in two different directions. Women who had stay-at-home mothers “work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers,” says Dr Lupu.

Women who had working mothers might be marked by the absence of their mothers compared to the mothers of their peers.

On the other hand, female participants whose stay-at-home mothers had instilled strong career aspirations into them from an early stage. In these cases, the participants’ mothers sometimes set themselves up consciously as ‘negative role models’,  says the study, encouraging their daughters not to repeat their own mistake.

“We have found that the enduring influence of upbringing goes some way towards explaining why the careers of individuals, both male and female, are differentially affected following parenthood, even when those individuals possess broadly equivalent levels of cultural capital, such as levels of education, and have hitherto pursued very similar career paths,” says Dr Lupu.

She says the research raises awareness of the gap that often exists between unconscious expectations and conscious ambitions related to career and parenting.

“If individuals are to reach their full potential, they have to be aware of how the person that they are has been shaped through previous socialisation and how their own work/family decisions further reproduce the structures constraining these decisions,” says Dr Lupu.

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