Discover more from Think of the Children
Yael Schonbrun and 'Work, Parent, Thrive'
On the hard choices working parents face, and why it's OK to tap out when our kids won't stop talking about Pokemon cards
Yael Schonbrun is a licensed clinical psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University, and author of "Work, Parent, Thrive: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much).”
Tell me about Work, Parent, Thrive. What prompted you to write this book, and what do you hope people will take away from it?
What prompted me to write this book was becoming a working parent myself, and not feeling like I had all the tools I thought I would need to be happy and satisfied and be able to do the things that I love. I really like my work, and at the time I became a parent, I was in a very firmly research oriented career and I had a supportive partner and flexible colleagues and peers who were doing great at their job and seemed to be invested in parenting in ways that made sense to me, but I had a much harder time to adjust than I anticipated. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on.
What I saw there was really important pointing toward the workplace inequity, but what felt missing to me was the psychological point of view. As somebody who’s really dedicated to happiness science, I was interested in this idea of, what do we do when there's a situation that doesn’t work. How do we tolerate it ? I started looking into the academic literature and I found a lot there that really filled what I was looking for, and some ways we can use social science to make our day-to-day-realities more joyful, and more skillful, even in the face of situations that do need to be improved.
When I started to read your book, what I noticed was that I was really resistant to this idea, because I was really stuck on the idea that, No, some of these externalities really do need to change! But as I read the book, I really felt that you were very gently but persistently keeping both of these things at the forefront, that there may be conditions that do urgently need to change, and also, we can change how we relate to those conditions. And that it’s not one or the other; it’s both.
I really do feel so, so strongly that both parts are true. I love hearing what comes up for people and I think that resistance to the psychological tools we can use is pretty common. I just today got a very eloquent passionate Instagram message from someone who felt very similarly. You know, this person was asking, what about racism, what about this social policy that is inhumane? And in a sense, I’m saying, they need to work together. There’s the outside-in approaches, ways that we need to be working on the system, and, at the same time, we can also be using these psychological tools to make our way through our days more happily, more healthily, more skillfully. That doesn’t make it easy, especially when the world that we live in is so fraught.
Think of the Children is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Can you share an example of how you navigate these types of situations — when you’re facing what seems like an impossible decision? You give one example in the book, where one of your parents is unwell and being with them means being away from your own kids and your professional responsibilities.
The example I share in my book, it isn’t work vs. parenting, it’s a dying parent vs. everything else, but it exemplifies an experience I think people who inhabit multiple demanding roles that they care about face on a day-to-day basis. We really care to show up, heart and soul and body, in ways that are really authentic, but there’s competing demands, and we can’t be in two places at once. And sometimes if we make a choice, we feel like we’re falling short for both roles, and it feels impossible.
I see a lot of working parents, and I just saw a patient recently who had to travel out of state for work, and back at home, she had a young child who had an ear infection. Her child got on the phone and said, “Would you please come home? I really need you.” And her heart was kind of torn and she couldn’t decide what to do, because leaving would mean taking a hit at work. That has consequences, If people feel like we’re less reliable, we might even be at risk of losing a job, and that is how we help our family stay afloat. And the child might be OK, but we have this very real sense that showing up for our kids in reliable ways makes a difference for their ability to form secure attachments. And sometimes there are even more significant risks, like a health issue that doesn’t get accounted for. So it’s an impossible choice.
Full lives are happy lives, but they’re also lives that tend to be conflicted, because we want lots of things. There will be times we feel that tension between demands.
In this case, this person ended up cutting their meeting short, but we talked about, sometimes they might have to make a different choice. Sometimes the child would be the one cut short. So the guidance that I have for what to do there comes from a treatment called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, that has a lot of science supporting it. One of the practices is clarifying values. So it’s recognizing that in terms of outcome, we can’t do it all, it won’t be perfect, but we do have more control over how we show up, moment to moment. The ability to clarify for yourself, what would I feel proud of in terms of having prioritized? About a quality of action, not just about showing up or not showing up. Being really present is really important for effectiveness. Being really compassionate, and being really empathetic to whoever you are disappointing — those qualities of action help us feel connected to the person we want to be when we’re faced with these impossible options.
In the situation with my dad, the questions were about, What would my dad have wanted, or on my own deathbed, what would I advise my own kids about how I would want them to show up? Those kinds of clarifying questions — it’s helpful to accept where we can’t do it all.
I think, too, these questions can be hard because we want to know the “right” answer. We can get hung up on outcomes; what will happen if I do X vs. if I do Y? But what I hear you saying is that, we can choose to focus instead on our values, rather than trying to guess at what the outcome might be, which is of course unknowable and out of our control.
Right — If you have a work assignment, is it better to stay up late and get it done, or get fresh for the meeting? It’s unknowable. You don’t know. Are you going to be able to get to sleep? What will you be like in the morning? We are wired to want certainty, because it means greater safety. We prefer certain pain than uncertain outcomes.
For that reason, it’s helpful to just recognize that impulse and be more deliberate about holding the outcome lightly and focusing on what we have influence over so we can show up moment to moment. These outcomes are important to us. It’s important to show up for your kids in particular ways, but we can’t predict the future and sometimes we’ll show up and think we have it all figured out, and it still doesn’t work out the way we thought it would. So hold that lightly and be really deliberate about reflecting on how you care most to show up.
Most of us are taught, if you work really hard and you pick the right partner, you should be able to do this whole working parenthood thing. But when we confront the reality, it feels like, Oh shoot, what did I do wrong? Shouldn’t this not be so painful? And I almost think that mistake of expectations is something we can do better with now. Full lives are happy lives, but they’re also lives that tend to be conflicted, because we want lots of things. There will be times we feel that tension between demands.
How old are your kids now?
I have a 6-year-old in kindergarten, a 10-year-old in fourth grade, and a 12-year-old in seventh grade.
When you’re working, where are your kids?
Parents think so much about where their kids bodies need to be when you’re working. My kids are in school while I work. I’m incredibly privileged and I appreciate that privilege quite literally on a daily basis, that I’m able to work my schedule around their school schedule and I do take advantage of after care. And summers are an absolute nightmare, and I’m sure many working parents know. The signups start in January and everything fills up, but I still have a job, not to mention it’s so expensive, and cross town travel, and it’s quite inconvenient. So during the school year when there’s not snow days or vacations, they’re in school, and then in the summer it is much harder. My husband and I always figure it out, but it’s very stressful.
It is SO stressful. My daughter is 11, and I keep thinking it will get easier? But somehow it doesn’t. It’s just still hard, every summer.
My oldest is 12, just this week there was a signup for a camp and a couple of friends of my kids who wanted to do it, but nobody could get on, and by the time we could, it was all full, and the backup plan isn’t happening this year. It is a nightmare.
What’s challenging about parenting for you at this time in your life?
Summer feels hard, but in addition to summer, maybe the thing that’s hardest is also the thing that’s most wonderful is that my kids are not babies anymore. They’re growing up and more independent. I miss them; I miss that sweetness and them needing me, and they can be really annoying because they have a different sense of humor, and it makes them so interesting and multifaceted, and they’re funny about it.
My youngest, I think encouraged by his two older brothers, is really obsessed with Pokemon. He has the binder full of cards, he wants to talk about it constantly, and he wants to talk about it with me. Sometimes I can — I’m not interested in baseball, either, but I can hang with it. But Pokemon — my brain just turns off when I hear about it. But it ‘s so funny how he’s now into quizzing me about it. I love that he has his own interest and even in kindergarten he’s developing his own little personality that has nothing to do with me. We still share plenty of things. We have some things in common but Pokemon is just not one of them.
That’s so funny, because in my house, we are all constantly talking about Pokemon and baseball. So you can tell your son that if he ever wants to talk about those things, he can give me a call. But I know what you mean — there are those things our kids want to tell us all about and be really engaged with us about, because they’re interested in it, and sometimes it’s like, Oh … OK.
And I think it’s OK to check out. I actually think it’s really helpful to give your kids as much present mindful attention as you can, and then to tap out and say, OK, I gotta go do this other thing, you can look at the Pokemon cards yourself. But when you are involved, try to be there for as long as you can.
There was a great article about this, about what we as parents often do, because we’re not totally interested in something, so we kind of half ass it, and they’re kind of not satisfied so they're still hungry for it. But what if you turn that on its head? If you can give them that more focused attention for a shorter period of time, then you can be done.
Thanks to Yael for speaking with me! You can find Work, Parent, Thrive, wherever books are sold, and Yael and I both encourage you to find a copy from an independent bookstore. You can also find Yael at yaelschonbrun.com and at @yaelschonbrun on the usual social channels. Finally, Yael is a co-host of a podcast called Psychologists Off the Clock — give it a listen!