Your Feelings About Work-Life Balance Are Shaped by What You Saw
Your Parents Do

Your Feelings About Work-Life Balance Are Shaped by What You Saw Your Parents Do

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We’re obsessed with work-life balance. There’s no shortage of research, articles, and self-help
books trying to help us find and restore a balance between our work and nonwork lives. However,
most of the discussion and advice tends to focus on changing individual career decisions, or team
expectations, or organizational contexts. But what if other factors mattered as well?

In my research, recently published in Human Relations, I’ve found that our upbringing can have
an enduring influence on our work and career decisions — and that what we subconsciously learn
from our parents plays an important role in how we think about and manage work-life balance.
I conducted 148 in-depth interviews with 78 parents who work in the London offices of two global
law and accounting firms. I spoke with an equal number of men and women, most of whom were
between 30 and 50 years old and were in either middle or senior management roles. The majority
of senior men in our study had stay-at-home spouses, but this was rarely the case for our female
participants. Most participants were raised in middle-class families and typically had had a stayat-home mother and a breadwinner father.

Our study found that people are hardly blank slates when they join the workforce; their beliefs
and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often shaped early on,
simply by observing their parents’ behaviors and attitudes. These dispositions become deeply
ingrained, part of daily routines, and thus taken for granted.

According to our research, most individuals fall into one of four categories: (1) They willingly
adopt their parents’ model of work-life balance; (2) they unintentionally adopt their parents’
model; (3) they willingly reject their parents’ model; or (4) they unintentionally reject their
parents’ model. Interestingly, although the majority of individuals belong to one of these four
categories, there are a limited number who straddle more than one category.

Reproducing the Parental Model

Most of the men in our study found themselves having a work-life balance similar to their
parents’, specifically their fathers’. The majority of them were the only or primary breadwinner
in their families.

Participants who grew up in families where the father was the breadwinner and worked very long
hours often ended up, willingly or not, internalizing this work ethic. The effect was stronger for
men, because while both parents served as role models for participants’ careers, in all my
interviews, men and women designated their same-sex parent as the most important influence

on their work-life balance choices. (For example, fathers’ work patterns appeared to have very
little influence on their daughters’.)
Frank, a senior manager in a global audit firm, and a willing reproducer of his parents’ model,
recounted how he regularly saw his father working very long hours:

I saw my father coming back late every day on the weekdays, and actually he continued working
on the weekends…. So I guess that’s why…I have never seen working over the weekend as
something extraordinary, because that is something that I have seen all my life at home.
Similarly, Jack, a partner in a global law firm, learned from his father how to work “hard enough”:
I had a role model of a father who just worked all the time he could. So, long hours are not just
familiar to me, but they are my sense of what working hard enough looks like.

Having seen their parents work hard throughout their childhood and adolescence, these
professionals were prone to consider hard work as normal. They were able to rationalize even
compulsive work behaviors that had negative consequences for their family life. Even when they
wanted to act differently, this disposition continued to shape their actions. For instance, Jack, a
father of two children, lamented that he somehow forgot the promise he made to himself to be
a more involved parent than his father was. This pattern was common among our male

Jack was also similar to his father in that he had a stay-at-home wife. Like most of the male senior
managers we talked to, reproducing this traditional family model led Jack to engage in gendered
stereotypical behavior, such as being a “weekend father,” even when he consciously found this

My biggest regret is that I regarded it as completely inevitable that I will work [very long hours
and] every weekend…. And so undoubtedly there are things that maybe I would have done with
the kids if I’d be thinking, “How shall I use this time to do something with the kids?”
Moreover, his upbringing conditioned him to perceive this model as the only one that could work
for him, and made it difficult for him to imagine an alternative mode of functioning.

Some of the female participants who had working mothers also willingly adopted their career
commitment. These women were less conflicted about their work-family responsibilities and
managed to cope better with the guilt of being committed to their careers. For instance, Cat, a
senior manager in a global audit firm, had always worked full-time and was the main

Growing up, my parents both worked…and during that time we had a full-time nanny at the
house, and what I remember is that having a nanny was great. I don’t remember being distant
from my parents or missing them or them not being around. I remember being totally normal, so
I’ve never believed that being a working parent is a bad thing. I guess that’s probably influenced

a lot of why, right now, I think it’s okay for me to be at work.

Not all women felt the same about their working mothers; some regarded them as negative role
models. This was the case for Anne, a manager in a Big 4 firm:

[My mum] didn’t miss work…. She was always willing to work long hours even though it was at
the expense of her family. I think somehow initially I took that on as well — I didn’t want to miss
work at whatever cost. My son was sick and I’d get somebody to stay with him because I had to
be at work.

Anne expressed regrets about how her work negatively affected her relationship with her own
children, just as her mother’s work affected their relationship. Yet, at the time I encountered her,
she had not managed to bring herself to make a substantial change in her work-life balance,
though she had given herself a deadline to reduce the number of hours worked (which for the
last few months was around 70 hours per week).

Despite our participants telling us they consciously aspired to have a more balanced life, many
continued to reproduce an ethos of hard work and sacrificing family life — even when they had
the explicit goal of not following in their parents’ footsteps. This suggests that the attitudes
formed during upbringing can shape people’s choices and end up reproducing the status quo. It
also suggests that rational decisions play only one part in work-family choices and that
unconscious and embodied dispositions play a role as well.

Discontinuing the Parental Model

In fewer cases, participants reported rejecting their parents’ approach toward work-life balance.
Usually, this was intentional, but in some cases participants ended up distancing themselves from
their parents’ model despite their desire for continuity.

Typically, participants would start questioning the influence of their parents on their work-life
behaviors after reflecting on perceived failures and regrets or after traumatic events, such as
someone close to them dying or getting sick. Then they’d make significant changes to their lives,
such as refusing to work weekends, going part-time, or even leaving their firms for an
environment with more controllable hours.

There are two subgroups that were well represented among our participants: women who
wanted to distance themselves from excessively career-focused mothers and women who
wanted to distance themselves from regretful stay-at-home mothers.

As an example of the first subgroup, Christa, a partner in a global law firm who reduced her
working hours after returning from maternity leave and envisaged stepping down in order to be
a more involved mother, expressed this conflict quite lucidly:

My mum was a working mum. When I was at school at a very young age, I used to be quite upset
that I had a child-minder that picked me up from school and I didn’t have my own mum outside
the school gates like a lot of my friends did. And it’s only now that I’ve started rethinking about
that and thinking, Well, isn’t that going to be the same for [my son] if I’m working the way I am
— he’s going to have somebody picking him up from school and maybe he won’t like that, and is
that what I want for my child?
The second subgroup is represented by women who willingly distanced themselves from their
mothers who stayed at home reluctantly. These mothers instilled in their daughters a desire to
be independent and encouraged them to have a career so as not to repeat their own mistakes.
This is the case for Sylvia, a director in a global audit firm:

I do remember my mother always regretting she didn’t have a job outside the home, and that
was something that influenced me and all my sisters…. She’d encourage us to find a career where
we could work. She was quite academic herself, more educated than my father, but because of
the nature of families and young children, she’d had to become this stay-at-home parent.

Unlike many of the men from our study, who felt trapped in traditional family models where they
were the breadwinner while their spouse cared for the children, women in dual career couples,
such as Anne, felt they could more easily afford the “luxury” of reducing their work involvement
in order to have a better work-life balance. Thus we see how people in traditional family models
have less flexibility to alter initial work-family choices than dual-career couples who report more
equally sharing the child-caring responsibilities.

In sum, the impediments to greater work-life balance and satisfaction lie not only in organizations
and society but also within individuals themselves through learned dispositions. This research
should raise awareness of the gap that often exists between conscious ambitions related to
career and parenting and unconscious attitudes and expectations. If we want to reach our full
potential, we have to be aware of how who we are has been shaped by our earliest experiences.