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MAY 5, 2000

I Make a Great Living. How Come I Feel Like a Lousy Parent?

From "Work and Family -- Allies Or Enemies?"


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Researchers have historically paid considerable attention to the impact that employment -- the simple fact of working outside the home -- has on mothers and their children. Relatively few studies address how the quality of parents' work lives influences their capacity to care for children and the children's health and development. Our study of 861 business professionals looked closely at this critical issue.

Many parents today are arranging their work and family roles in original ways. We won't know the long-term consequences of such arrangements until their children grow up. We can, however, assess the impact of career and work experiences on the care that children receive currently and on their health and development. We can then use what we learn to guide personal action and corporate and social policy.

Children are stakeholders at work. Our study shows that they benefit when mom and dad view being a parent as important. They suffer when their parents value career over family responsibilities. One surprising result of our study is that business professionals' parental performance suffers among those who earn the most. With all that money can buy for children, a high income still does not overcome a serious problem kids face when their parents (especially their fathers) are so psychologically involved in work that they cannot attend well to the demands of being a parent.

Parents reading this chapter may find some of our observations disconcerting. Some will surely recognize the negative effects we uncover in their own families. However, we also show ways in which work is an ally of the family and how the resources work provides can help parents and children.

WORK'S EFFECTS ON CHILDREN. The home role and the work role each require our full attention at times. It is critical that working parents develop the mental agility and versatility to switch adeptly between roles. Parents also have to be physically available to their children. That means being there to help with homework, get our children to school, to the doctor, and to others to whom we entrust their well-being. That sort of availability depends in part on the number of hours our work requires and how much discretion we have to arrange our work schedules.

Work and career also provide resources for our family lives. The most obvious is economic, but there are also social resources. The supportive relationships we develop at work often substitute for what people once got from their neighborhoods or communities -- information on childcare resources or pediatricians.

CAREER VALUES. The aspirations women and men have for their careers affect their perceptions of how well their children are cared for differently. Take, for instance, aspirations to hierarchical advancement and wealth. Mothers who want money and power from their careers feel that their children receive higher-quality care than do mothers who have lower career aspirations and who care less about wealth.

Yet it is the opposite for fathers: the less a father aspires to hierarchical advancement, the better he feels about his performance as a parent. And the lower the value a father places on wealth, the better he feels about the care his children receive. We believe that a mother's high career aspirations result in high levels of self-esteem, which in turn enhances her capacity to care for her children and to arrange for effective childcare. When a father has relatively low career aspirations, he's more available to his children.This makes him a more effective parent.

We found that children's health, behavior, and school performance are enhanced when their mothers or fathers say that family is very important in how they judge the success of their lives. School performance is relatively good among children whose parents place higher value on a career that offers flexibility, time for self, and time for family. And children's general health is higher if their parents place relatively high value on the intrinsic rewards of work: challenge, creativity, and enjoyment.

Children of career-focused parents are more likely to experience behavior problems than those whose parents are family-focused. These same children are also likely to be doing less well in school.

WORK EXPERIENCES. Values and priorities about career and family are not all that determine how we feel about our parenting and our children's health and development. Certain aspects of our experiences at work also make a difference. Some make perfect sense; others may be surprising at first. Our business professionals who see themselves performing well as parents share several characteristics:

-- good job performance
-- a high level of job satisfaction
-- an employer that is supportive of family needs
-- self-employment or working in a family business
-- a relatively low annual income

Let's look at the bottom of the list: income. Why does high income produce perceptions of poor parental performance? Could it be that people who earn very high incomes know deep down that they are neglecting their responsibilities as parents in favor of their work obligations, in essence trading family for career? With their feet held to the fire, perhaps these parents might say something along these lines: "How else could I earn all that money if I didn't have to make some sacrifices at home, like working too many hours or being too involved in my work?"

High income doesn't result in poor parental performance. What is really operating here is that intense psychological involvement in career leads to the perception of lower parental performance. Unlike high income, doing a good job and being satisfied with work contribute to feeling that we perform well as parents. Further, being in a work environment that supports family needs -- and, in the case of self-employment, allows for high levels of autonomy --contributes to our sense that we have the support of others and the requisite flexibility to be good parents.

Stewart D. Friedman ( is currently director of the Ford Motor Co.'s Leadership Development Center in Dearborn, Mich., while on leave from his faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He has also been an advisor on work and family to Vice-President Al Gore. Jeffrey H. Greenhaus ( is professor of management and William A. Mackie Professor of Commerce and Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author or co-author of three books.

The authors' research on work and family has been widely profiled in the media and academic journals.

Reprinted and excerpted with permission of Oxford University Press Copyright 2000 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise without prior permission of Oxford University Press.

Available at local or online bookstores. For more information on this book, see its listing on the Oxford University Press Web site []


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