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Parental and Professional Identity at Work

Carina Paine Schofield, Alison Green and Louisa Kouzapas

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Global Parents Day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of July annually and is a day to celebrate the role of parents and how important parenting is for children.

Despite the transition to parenthood being one of the more significant in working life, there is very little research done into the lives and experiences of working parents. This is particularly surprising when we consider that most organizations today are looking to build inclusive cultures, support working parents and to attract and retain diverse talent.

At Hult EF, we have partnered with WOMBA (Work, Me and the Baby), to pioneer UK research into exactly that - The Working Parents Shift, research that explores the psychological challenges and experiences when making the shift from worker to working parent.

The purpose of this research is to provide recommendations and practical changes that organizations can make to improve the experience of working parents which goes beyond flexible working practices, to ensure that working parents feel supported and organizations retain motivated employees.

The First Findings: Love is Universal

In the first phase of the research, we invited Mums and Dads to share their experiences and challenges. We always have a lens to diversity within our research and the initial call was for parents of any sexuality, gender or ethnic background. Predominantly the qualitative interviewees in the first stages were with heterosexual parents and some same-sex parents, from different ethnic backgrounds and inclusive of those with families including adopted children. For the next quantitative stage, we will include parents from a range of demographics and backgrounds and we will be able to explore differences in the data in more detail.

At first, the experience of Mums and Dads seems very similar, it is clear from parents that Love is universal… but then a subtle but profound difference starts to emerge.

As you would expect, there is an abundance and breadth of love. Loving the child, the time spent with them, loving the little things children do, watching their partner with their child and sharing stories about them. They all talked about loving being a parent, a working parent and loving their jobs. It is clear from the research that we can love our child and love our job. However, the relationship between the two is described differently by Dads than Mums, and the extent to which we can love both seems to depend on whether you are a working mum or a Dad.

DAD: “I love my child AND love my work”

For Dads they describe a love for their child AND a love for their work. The Dads we spoke to had confidence and belief these two worlds could co-exist and they could enjoy them both.

As one Dad asked us:

“Am I living a life of luxury here, having both the career and the shared parental leave?”

Sometimes this was tinged with guilt and a feeling of being fortunate compared to their partners.

MUM: “I love my child BUT love my work”

For mums the picture is a little different, they describe a love for their child BUT they love their work. There was tension between these two worlds. As one Mum said:

“There’s a perception that I’ve gone from being someone who really cared and was good at work to someone who doesn’t care. And that’s really not true. I love my job”.

Parental Identity at Work

This difference between Mums and Dads had implications for how much of themselves and especially their parental identity they brought to work. For Dads, there is an attitude of “it is what it is” and they seemed more relaxed sharing their parental identity at work:

“I don’t want to hide my whole self at work because I love my child”.

The stories for mums are dominated by those who want to have a professional identity and the importance of “being more than just Mum.” Mothers describe how having a work identity makes them feel fulfilled and provides them with a purpose. Several Mums went so far as to talk about either needing or wanting to hide their parental identity when working, they did not want people at work to see them as a mother and often put on a front. How much of their parental identity and experience they shared at work was much more considered than Dads, and was dependent on how trusted a relationship they had with their manager, team and colleagues:

“I don’t want that pre-judgement that I’m not going to be able to do certain things because I’ve got a child.”

All mothers interviewed describe the importance and challenge of trying to balance the two identities, and when things do not work, mothers described deeper levels of feeling conflicted, guilty and at times, like a failure.

Recommendations for Organizations and Individuals

We asked working parents what support has helped and would help them achieve a better balance. Currently, corporate initiatives tend to focus on helping working mothers manage the practical challenges but there are other ways organizations can support the psychological shift for working parents too.

  • Support networks: parents described the incredible value of being able to share their experiences with someone in the same industry or organization (not just their friends) in which they can share stories, discuss any challenges (psychological or practical) and support each other.

  • Recognize the span of parenthood: Support for parenthood past the immediate return from parental leave – the challenges continue through parenthood. Working parents need support as much as new returners – the nature and timing may be different as might their feelings of “work self” as parenthood unfolds.

  • Individual plans: every family is different, and family life is constantly shifting. As a working parent, find out what works for you and your family – find your own balance.

    • For organizations, give managers the autonomy to take an individual approach to find creative solutions that meet both individual and business needs.

  • Work together: there is a need for flexibility on both sides.

    • Organizations need to provide the opportunity to communicate and create working solutions together with working parents.

    • Individuals need to be prepared and willing to adapt to changing family and work needs.

Get Involved

This study is part of a larger project looking at how working parents transition and balance their professional and parental identities. We are now embarking on the next two phases of the project:

  • Phase 1: Interviewing returning Mums and Dads

  • Phase 2: Surveying Working Parents and their Managers

  • Phase 3: Exploring the Impact of the Wider Organisational Context

If you or your organization want to be included please get in touch: carina.schofield@ashridge.hult.edu or alison.green@ashridge.hult.edu

Research Leads: Dr. Carina Paine Schofield & Dr. Lee Waller (Hult International Business School) and Alison Green & Helen Sachdev (WOMBA)
Article co-written with Louisa Kouzapas.

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