The New Face of Working Parents

In the wake of the pandemic, major shifts in work-life culture—like opportunities for remote work, job sharing, and flex schedules—mean parents are creating their dream careers. Here's how you can too.

working parent in a coffee shop with baby
Photo: Getty | Morsa Images

We've all heard the pandemic work-from-home horror stories: Dogs barking in the background during a super important Zoom. A clueless spouse passing by without pants on. Forgetting to press mute before yelling at your kids. But those embarrassing moments barely scratch the surface of the real dilemma facing most working parents. Pandemic parenting has been daunting at best and excruciating at its worst. Lack of child care and virtual schooling, then the unpredictable nature of school closings once schools actually opened again kept families in a near panicked state.

A new report from researchers at Ohio State University reveals that 66% of working parents have parental burnout, which is characterized as feeling exhausted, irritable, emotionally detached, or overwhelmed. This struggle to find balance between work and family responsibilities, in part, led to a massive professional exodus in the United States. Of the 4.5 million people who left their jobs during the Great Resignation, half cited child care issues and lack of flexibility, according to The Pew Research Center.

Not surprisingly, this issue has disproportionately affected women, who carried most of the child and elder care responsibilities. But something has shifted in the last two years. The pandemic highlighted the many ills of American work culture. For a century, work has meant a five-day-a-week schedule, long and late hours, and hardly any flexibility when it comes to family life.

Those days are over, according to Benjamin Granger, Ph.D., head of employee experience at Qualtrics. Employee output and performance no longer supersede personal needs. "Workers want more flexibility and companies are finally defining flexibility more broadly," explains Dr. Granger. "We might as well throw that old playbook away." That means changes to how many days a week you work, how performance gets evaluated, what times you are on the clock, and employers offering resources for mental health needs.

Fearful of losing good talent, companies are embracing a different level of work-life integration, explains Camille Fetter, founder and CEO of digital business executive search firm Talentfoot: "For the first time parents can work when and how they want. It's a great time to pivot and pursue opportunities that are best for you."

Benjamin Granger, Ph.D., head of employee experience at Qualtrics. 

Workers want more flexibility and companies are finally defining flexibility more broadly. We might as well throw that old playbook away.

— Benjamin Granger, Ph.D., head of employee experience at Qualtrics. 

Learning to embrace and exploit this new normal can be hard for employees. It's natural to be risk-averse. Change can be scary, but if your current work situation is not making you miserable, a change is exactly what you need. Take tips from bold parents who have created a more meaningful work-life balance for themselves and their families in this post-pandemic world.

The Leap of Faith

Who hasn't fantasized about being their own boss? Most of us dream of calling the shots and doing something we really love. That was the motivation behind Shawn Hill's decision to kiss his corporate gig goodbye.

Working in advertising sales, he says the industry had morphed into something he could no longer feel good about. "One of the folks I sold advertising to went under because the ads were actually costing them so much money," he says. "They weren't getting any return on their investment. It was kind of a moral compass check. I texted my wife and said, 'Hey, I can't do this anymore.'"

Though he didn't have a clear-cut plan as to what to do next, he and his wife, a stay-at-home mom of seven, had always dreamed about exploring different parts of the country during retirement age. "But we wanted our kids to experience that too," he adds. With the money they had saved up, they bought an RV and hit the road in March of 2021. A few months earlier, Hill had launched, a blog about one of his favorite pastimes—grilling and smoking meats. When he wasn't driving and spending time with the family, he wrote for fun. But landing another job was still in the back of his mind a few months into the journey. "We actually started getting to the point where it's like, 'hey, eventually, we're going to run out of money here,'" he admits. "Like, 'what the heck are we going to do?'"

That's when he started to use his advertising acumen to make money from his blog. By November of 2021, he was generating a full income from it. The drawbacks of being your own boss? "I'm always thinking about work and checking the analytics for the site," Hill says, who's now based in West Virginia. "I don't get that drive home to turn work off and transition into dad mode; it's all on me—the success and potential fail."

Despite that, the benefits have been tremendous for Hill, whose family has settled in West Virginia, one of the many states they drove through. "We can travel whenever we want," he says. "I can spend more time with my family and help with the small stuff I usually would've missed out on."

Best advice: "Start where you are with what you have," Hill says. "Whatever your business idea, you don't have to go out and get the most expensive equipment and pay a ton of money to get started. Just start where you are, with what you have. You can do it really low cost. Most people recommend that, if you have a steady job that you don't absolutely hate, just keep that income coming in and start building something on the side. You're gonna sacrifice some sleep, you're gonna sacrifice some fun, but in the end, you know, if your dream's big enough, you'll definitely make it work."

Sharing the Load

Ever wish you could clone yourself to get everything done that you need to get done? Navreet Dhillon, M.D., found the next best thing. An internist in San Jose, California, she splits her position with another mom physician. "I started job-sharing after I came back from maternity leave with my first child," she says. "I realized even before I went off to have my baby that I would not be able to do both properly." That's an issue many working parents face—how do I balance a career I love with a family I love even more? This type of work set-up could be the closest thing you can find to having it all, giving parents the unique ability to prioritize both.

Moms Jennifer Zimmer and Meghan Kludt pitch themselves as a package deal. Since 2018, the marketing execs have worked at several companies together and currently share the role of director of brand partnerships at Motherly in Chicago, each working three days per week. "Meghan is on from Monday to Wednesday and I am on from Wednesday to Friday," explains Zimmer. "Our Wednesday is a day to catch up together and schedule most of our client meetings. We are both incredibly flexible with our days and times and able to jump in if an important client or internal meetings come up when it's one of our 'off' days."

It's a similar setup for Dr. Dhillon, who overlaps one day with her job-sharing partner. "I work three and a half days a week and she works three days. We primarily take care of our own patients, but we cover each other's patients when the other doctor is not in." Given the nature of her job, it helps to have the same qualifications and treatment style, notes Dr. Dhillon. And good communication is key on the one day they overlap.

There can be downsides, cautions Kludt. "Sometimes details or communication can slip through the cracks, but very rarely as we have great communication," she says. "There is also potential to miss information from meetings you are not in attendance for on your days off. In addition, since we are usually considered part-time employees as individuals, we aren't eligible for benefits of any kind, like 401k, insurance, employee enrichment offerings, and expense accounts."

Additionally, with a split salary, your take-home is significantly lower. Plus, not all companies and organizations are open to the idea, so you may have to offer a trial period until everyone is on board.

It can also be tricky for fields like law and medicine, warns Dr. Dhillon. "In my practice, we are the only two people doing this," she says. "I'm part-time, but I definitely put in more hours than are on the books and I know my partner does as well. So even on days we are theoretically off, we do log on."

Still, the benefits of job-sharing are clear. There are flexible schedules and more time with family, while still having a fulfilling career. "This has helped me fill my cup so that I can be there for my patients," says Dr. Dhillon. "We are seeing a lot of burnout and just really tired physicians during COVID. I get to paint in my spare time. I use that to recharge." Employers are also at a unique advantage: there is always coverage and they get two great minds for the price of one.

Best advice: "Know what each individual can bring to the table—the strengths and weaknesses—and how their job share partner can complement each other with their skill sets," says Zimmer.

Adds Dr. Dhillon, "The older I get the more I realize it doesn't hurt to ask for what you need. Don't be afraid to ask for a shared position. If you have a valuable skill, your employer will want to accommodate you."

Remote Control

It's a dilemma that every working parent has faced at some point: attend the kid's recital or skip it for a work commitment? That was the unyielding tug-of-war that plagued Orlando-based mom Cindy Marie Jenkins in the early years of parenthood. It's always been a precarious balance for the busy marketing professional. A year ago, on staff at a family magazine, she felt fortunate when they would let her stay home when one of her kids fell ill.

Now, however, she is freelance and fully remote, which enables her to craft a schedule that works well for her family. She and her husband, who works full-time, tag team taking care of the kids' needs. He shuttles them to school so she can begin her first meeting by 8 a.m. and, aside from braking to walk the dog, she remains laser-focused until a hard stop at school pickup time. What follows is a busy afternoon of activities before dinner. Once the kids are settled for the evening, it's back to work at night.

"It's always been a matter of working in the margins," says Jenkins. It's hard at times and there are moments she squeezes in work while waiting for swim class to end. If she puts work on the back-burner to volunteer at her son's school, she makes it up on the weekend. Though, with such a tight family schedule, it's difficult when something new is thrown into the mix. "My son now needs extra help with phonics and, even though I am the reader and writer and I love phonics, when I heard that, all I could think is, 'When is that fitting into our day and how do we keep our routine?'" she explains. But having control over her own work schedule allows her to make the adjustments her family needs.

Still, there are real disadvantages to a solitary work life. Many full-time freelancers miss the energy of an office. Being around colleagues creates a natural camaraderie, can spark creativity, and make work feel less wooden and transactional. Then there is the added burden of paying for health care out of pocket if you don't have a spouse or partner who has coverage. Though, for Jenkins, one perk makes the struggle worth it. "I am here when one of them has a stomachache, I can drop off stuff for teacher appreciation, or any of the other things that come with having children in school," she says. "It's hard, but I think having the flexibility is definitely better."

Best advice: Being a full-time freelancer may mean juggling several contracts or projects at once, so you need good time management skills. Jenkins also emphasizes the need to avoid burnout by carving out time just for you. When feeling overwhelmed, she tells her husband, "'I need to check out and be by myself for a bit.' And Saturdays, I let him sleep in and on Sunday he does the same for me."

Side Hustle Success

For her entire career, Tomika Anderson has had a lot of plates in the air. She is a writer, editor, freelance project manager, life coach, and runs her own PR firm. The pandemic fueled the Virginia-based mom's entrepreneurial spirit even further. While the changes in work-life sent so many of us into a tailspin, it had the opposite effect on Anderson. "I learned how to operate more efficiently because my son was home during remote schooling," explains the Woodbridge, Virginia mom. "So I was juggling him, my clients, and my dog. I had to learn how to outsource. I learned how to choose better who to have in my little support community. So I became more efficient, more organized, and therefore more confident about what I could achieve."

And what she achieved was turning a Facebook group into a full-fledged business. Anderson started the forum Single Parents Who Travel in 2013 to share her wanderlust with other like-minded people. The forum quickly grew to 10,000 single parents globally from Dallas to Dubai. In her copious free time Anderson organized meetups, vacations, and group excursions for members. But it wasn't just about travel for the quickly expanding community. They came to rely on each other for parenting advice, forging friendships and connections, especially during the devastating quarantine.

In June, Anderson launched, a full-service travel agency that does literally everything to make the trip special for single parents and their children. "We print your travel documents and mail them to you, we allow payments over time, and never charge interest or a processing fee, and offer 24-hour assistance during your trip," promises Anderson. "I am serious about our tagline of giving our children the world. I looked at ways to help single parents whether it be financial or having support when they get to where they are going."

Admittedly, it's a lot to take on. Eventually, her plan is to scale her other business back. For now, however, she keeps all her endeavors in play. Anderson credits much of her drive and success with therapy. She says there were experiences in her past holding her back, causing fear of taking the risks she needed to take. "There was an inner journey for me," she explains. "I healed things that happened in my life. The pandemic has made a lot of people dig deep. So many of us had to ask ourselves, 'if not now, then when?'"

Best advice: "Leverage your resources," Anderson suggests. "Let friends, neighbors, and family members help when you need it. I feel so many parents feel like some sort of failure if they don't do everything themselves. You're exhausted all the time because you're trying to do everything by yourself. You don't have to. We don't win any awards for doing it all. How long can you keep that up? It's not healthy. Ask for help. Accept help."

Off the Grid

Ever dream about a sunny beach overlooking crystal blue waters as the backdrop to your work day? That dream became a reality for Aja Rutledge when she traded the concrete jungle of Atlanta for the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in March of 2021, during the height of the pandemic quarantine. She had worked remotely for years, but with her son, 15, home too, she thought it was the perfect time to make the move. "Having the remote for my son and the remote for me definitely allowed it," she says.

But the goal wasn't just about landing in a sunny locale. Feeling burned out and stressed, Rutledge, the COO of a small business, suffers with some chronic health issues. Before the move, she had reduced her hours just to make it through the day. She chose Puerto Vallarta because it was walking distance to the beach, had a reasonable cost of living, and affordable health care coverage. "It's more balanced overall for me and my child," she tells Parents from a beach near her home. She proved that she could be just as productive and effective working a five-hour day, Tuesdays through Thursdays. "I only took clients where the time frame of when I worked didn't matter so I could determine how to manage my day. To get to less hours, I cut back the number of clients I had." So far, her little family is thriving.

Yet, she admits a major move like this comes with some struggles. She'll spend four years as a temporary resident before she can file for permanent residency. Her son misses his friends back home, but now that people are interacting once again, she sets up activities so they can both meet new people. And while she misses family and friends, "I am a true believer that people who love me will make time for me," she says. "My siblings fully supported me. We speak weekly, some have visited. It's as if we lived in the states."

Making the leap "definitely takes courage," she says. "You are walking into the unknown. You are moving away from everything and everybody you know. Even if life will be better, you don't know that yet. And doing it with your child adds a whole other level of fear versus doing something like this by yourself." Ultimately, it was fear of regret that helped her get over those concerns. If she hated it after a year or two, she knew she could always move back home.

Best advice: "It's normal to worry. How are you going to make money abroad? How do you land a remote job? Open yourself up to more than just what you are trained to do," says Rutledge. "Let go of old ideas about what your work life should be. You may have gone to school for a certain thing, but that doesn't mean you can't apply your skills to do something completely different and unexpected."

Taking Control of Your Work-Life

There are not many social upsides to the pandemic, but the shift in work-life culture is certainly one of them. Change can be scary, but this is a time for boldness, advises Dr. Granger. "Organizations are no longer in the power position," he says. "The balance has shifted in your favor."

With so much demand for talent, the experts say you can leave a job without having another one lined up (if you're financially able to do that). There is a great chance you will find another, better position quickly. Still skittish about making a shift? Fetter offers these tips for prepping for a new career:

  • Find a mentor, someone who can offer advice and guidance
  • Know the hard skills you bring to the table (a love of numbers, the ability to write well)
  • Avoid being a jack of all trades
  • Share the value you bring to the table.

"We now know that working remote is actually working; job-sharing is working; not having to commute three hours a day makes you more productive," adds Fetter. "I truly feel this is the moment when parents can essentially decide when they want to work, how they want to work, how much they want to work, and where they want to work. Now more than ever, go make it happen for yourselves. "

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