I’ve been known to say, with some frequency, that parenting truly hones our skills at work (and vice versa).  But what if someone told you that the tension that exists between work and home can actually make us happier?  That work-family conflict can be a bonus in our lives?

 I’m thrilled to be joined today by clinical psychologist and professor Yael Chatav Schonbrun, PhD, who is here to teach us a new (and wonderful) concept: work-life enrichment.

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Some lucky working parents have all the goodies—paid maternity leaves, meaningful jobs, supportive bosses, flexible schedules, 50/50 partnerships, and high quality childcare. But even these lucky folks can’t avoid the conflict between work and family roles.

While there are plenty of things that can ease the conflict between work and family, some part of that struggle remains untouchable. This is—at least in part—because the conflict between these roles is one that exists internally, emotionally, and psychologically.

As a psychologist, I specialize in treating various complicated internal conflicts. To be sure, we all struggle with psychological conflicts. But the battle between work and family roles can feel painfully persistent for working parents. After all, as Freud said, “work and love are the cornerstones to our humanness.” These two roles are core to who ambitious parents are.

The drive to be ambitious and the drive to engage in loving relationships tug at the hearts and souls of working parents, and often in opposing directions. You wonder, am I a loving enough parent if my commitment to progressing in my career requires long hours and regular travel? Or can I be a successful professional if I check out of the office—physically and virtually—to be present on the evenings and weekends with my children?  

That internal conflict can occur on a moment-to-moment basis, too. Ruthie, a program manager for an outpatient mental health specialty clinic recently described to me that she sometimes has to make a decision of whether “attending to a high-risk client is more important to do right now than pumping life sustaining milk” for her two-month-old infant. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to eliminate the conflict from such a choice.

The good news, though, is that the conflict arising between work and parenting roles is balanced by a host of gifts. Psychologists studying the impact of engagement in both work and family have found that while work and family roles compete for our finite resources, they also enrich each other. In other words, experiences in work or family roles improve quality of life in the other.

Work-family enrichment is not merely bright side of work-family conflict but rather is its own unique phenomenon. In fact, work-family enrichment often exists right alongside the conflict, even for someone like Ruthie who regularly has to choose between the life of a client and the nourishment of her infant. She explained to me that “I get stressed out at work, and then I get to come home and see my loving family. But if I stay home for too long, I get bored and restless. I want to get out and be around grownup people. Having both brings out the best in me and helps me be focused in whatever I’m doing.”

There will be conflict between work and parenting roles. And there will be enrichment. We can do ourselves some good by making an effort to regularly turn our minds towards the gifts of enrichment rather than focusing on the conflicts. Just like a gratitude exercise, attending to the enrichment of being engaged in these two meaningful roles can make it that much richer.

Still, we don’t have to pretend the conflict away. Nor could we. Part of the enrichment of being invested in both work and family roles actually comes from the complicated maneuvering required to move between them. In other words, enrichment comes from the very conflict that exists between all of our important life roles. As Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author of The Happiness Hypothesis summarizes, “Happiness comes from between, from finding the right relationship between yourself and others, between yourself and work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself.”

Getting to work-family enrichment means experiencing the tension between our most important roles, and then flexibly moving between those roles. Even with good fortune in hand, work and family roles will continue to compete for our resources and create ongoing internal conflict. Thankfully, the gift of having so many meaningful roles that each beckon to us is a foundation for great happiness.

Yael Chatav Schonbrun, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor at Brown University. In her spare time, she is a stay at home mother to her three boys, ages 7, 4, and 11 months. Her book exploring the psychology of straddling ambitious professional and engaged family life is forthcoming.

Need more help navigating the work-life tensions of a return to work after maternity leave?  Join the next session of Mindful Return for a 4-week program and supportive community.

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