Deciding whether you want to be a working parent or stay-at-home parent has long been a choice available to the privileged. But since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, a growing movement variously called “the big quit,” “the great resignation,” or “the great reshuffling” has confronted more individuals with this choice than ever before.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, roughly half of Americans cited child care and lack of flexibility as a reason they quit a job in 2021. Between labor shortages and workplaces offering flexible work arrangements, workers have become more empowered to weigh the financial rewards of work and joys of extended family time against the discomforts of commuting, unpleasant work environments, and being responsible for all child care.
But this choice is not without its challenges. The very fact of having a choice raises self-doubt and second-guessing that may undermine satisfaction with whatever choice you make—a so-called tyranny of choice.
When it comes to choosing to work full-time, part-time, remotely, or not at all, parents may feel that tyranny acutely. Working parents may feel guilt and worry about their lack of availability to their kids. Stay-at-home parents may feel judged for not doing “enough” even as they experience the exhaustion of always-parenting. And hybrid working parents may simply feel they are falling short in both roles.
As parents ourselves, we know all too well that whatever the path traveled, self-doubt and anxiety can pile on. But as academics with expertise in work-family conflict, decision making, and well-being, we can draw on science to help us make decisions with more confidence and less regret.
How parents’ work affects children
One place to turn for guidance is the research on work and parenting (though, notably, this research is focused almost exclusively on maternal employment).
For example, one study found that preschoolers of working parents showed better socio-emotional development. In another study, adult daughters of working mothers experienced greater success at work, while adult sons contributed more equally in household duties. It’s proof that you should choose working over staying home…until you discover the research showing the opposite effects. That includes evidence that children who spend more time in child care may be more aggressive and that children whose mothers are employed in the child’s first three years of life have worse verbal ability and academic success.
Even when researchers combine individual studies to try to detect broad patterns, the results don’t offer clear directives. Some such analyses point to small benefits of part-time work over full-time (with indications that the positive effects depend on children’s age and gender), and others suggest negligible impacts of maternal employment beyond the first year of a child’s life. It seems that beyond the initial six months to year of life when having a stay-at-home parent offers clearer benefit, a choice to work or be home, in and of itself, isn’t likely to have much impact on the immediate or long-term cognitive, social, or emotional development of a child.
What may matter more is how satisfied you are with your choice to work, not work, or pick an option in between. For instance, a national survey of working and non-working mothers asked about their beliefs about whether their employment status (working or not) was good for their children. Those with positive attitudes about their work status—regardless of which status it was—had better psychological well-being, and their children were doing better socially and emotionally. In other words, being happier with your choice matters more than the particulars of what you choose.
But how can you determine if you would be happier as a working parent, stay-at-home parent, or something in between?
Should I work or stay at home?
A different area of research than parenting science can help us weigh our work options: the science of making choices.
Aim for satisfactory. When it comes to making choices, some individuals seek and expect the very best outcomes of their choices; they are called “maximizers.” Maximizing your choice outcomes seems wise—who wouldn’t want the best possible outcome, especially when it comes to your happiness or your kids’ well-being? But here’s the surprise: Maximizers are more likely to experience regret, disappointment, anxiety, and depression, and are less likely to be happy when compared to “satisficers,” who seek “good enough” outcomes rather than the best.
A satisficer might set a criterion of spending two quality hours per day with their child, whereas a maximizer would investigate how much time other parents spend with their children and deliberate whether their time allocation was optimizing the child’s emotional, social, and academic outcomes. Because maximizers seek the best possible outcomes, there is always the possibility that somewhere out there lies a better outcome as a result of a different decision. So, a maximizer’s work is never done.
The lesson from this research is clear: Become a satisficer. Select criteria that are concrete and that you have the power to fulfill. Get clarity on how much household income it would be reasonable to generate, the number of hours you think would be important to spend with your children per day, or the benchmarks of personal success that you would find satisfying.
Get clear on your values. We can also prioritize making choices based on values rather than feelings like comfort or gratification. Values guide us to make choices that are consistent with the directions we’d like to take in our lives. You might, for example, value providing a model to your children of being out in the working world, making contributions, generating income, and having an identity outside of parenting. Alternatively, you might value being the kind of parent who places your children at the center of all of your choices and provides a model of steadfast availability.
Value-driven choices are more likely to help us feel confident, proud, and fulfilled than choices driven only by what feels good in the moment. Hewing to clearly articulated values helps you withstand the momentary discomforts that living in line with values can involve, whether you’re working late at the office or playing a game you detest with your kids.
Clarify your present-moment values. When values inevitably conflict with each other, like when a desire for work advancement butts up against a yearning to carve out more family time, the task is to sort out how important each value is for now. As your children grow, as your professional trajectory evolves, or as you, as a person, evolve, your values will change. What values do you want to prioritize right now? Use those values to guide your choices. Even when it doesn’t feel so great in the moment.
Be mindful of social comparison. Values can also offer guidance when social comparisons arise. Being social creatures, we humans are wired to take stock of our experiences by comparing. While traveling, a working parent can’t help but notice and feel envy toward a stay-at-home parent’s social media postings of the school play featuring kids in pink pig costumes. And what stay-at-home parent doesn’t envy their working partner’s solo work time, with opportunities to read emails from start to finish without interruption?
While we can’t eliminate the human tendency to compare, we have options in how we manage that tendency. With clear values in hand, we can remind ourselves what it is that we want to stand for in this phase of life. And we can remind ourselves that everyone experiences rough days, frustrations, and fatigue, and wishes to be somewhere else and doing something else. Some self-compassion and recognition that the grass can seem greener (even when it isn’t) can help here.
We might also limit our social media use and remember that people tend to show off their best days on Facebook and Instagram. And we can strive to savor the positives wherever we are and in whatever is going well in that moment. These kinds of activities help us pause our tendency to engage in social comparisons and help us focus on what makes us happy in our own lives.
The perfect choice?
It seems natural to pursue the option that offers all benefit and no cost. Unfortunately, no such path exists. Not working means less family income, an interrupted or terminated career, and fewer outlets for ambitious energies. Working parenthood, on the other hand, means less time with your kids, and fewer opportunities to enjoy the small moments and celebrate the milestones. Either way you choose, you can’t avoid missed opportunities.
This isn’t a tragedy, though—it’s just life. Considering missed opportunities allows you to choose what costs you are willing to take on, rather than have them be chosen for you. (But note: Excessive contemplation of missed opportunities will detract from the satisfaction you get from the opportunity you do choose—especially if you’re a maximizer.)
Rather than bemoaning costs and constraints, consider how they can liberate you from over-abundant choice. Learning to embrace your constraints can help you take better advantage of your unique path. If you choose to be a working parent, explore how to emphasize quality over quantity of parenting time by establishing reconnecting rituals and mindful presence when you’re with your children. Use yourself as an active model of how to balance multiple roles and deal with the reality of being stretched thin with grace and humor (when possible!). If you choose to pause your work life, find outlets for ambition and creativity by exploring opportunities in your community, within the gig economy, or even by signing up for a music or art class along with your child.
Not all of us are lucky enough to be able to act on the “great reshuffling,” but those of us who are can embrace the choice. Especially if we choose wisely.