“In Between” Parenting Is the Latest Identity Crisis Women Are Negotiating

On a recent power walk around our neighborhood, my mom friend, Laura, was lamenting her in-between status—she’s been working remotely since March 2020, and feels like neither a full-time, stay-at-home parent, nor a full-time, out-of-the-house working adult.

In short: She’s an in-betweener.  

There are plusses and minuses to this arrangement, she told me. It’s great when she’s around for a last-minute playground playdate. But it sucks that it has to coordinate with her Zoom meeting schedule and she needs to be able to check email throughout, a mindset that makes it hard to really watch a three year-old on the monkey bars.

On the flip side, when she’s conducting those virtual meetings out of her home office, she’s also distracted—mainly due to sibling squabbles within earshot, general interruptions and, well, mom guilt. (Mom’s home, but she can’t play.) The result? A persona that feels half in, half out…and not great.

This resonated for me. Pre-pandemic, my commute allowed for a physical separation that helped me compartmentalize. I had a work life and a home life that was defined. But now? I can’t fully commit to either role.

The problem seems to lie in the post-pandemic makeup of the workday: “Thanks to the pandemic, ‘I have it all’—a full work day and constant interaction with my children,” Laura said. “It’s efficient, but also results in a hybrid identity that feels vague.”

Another friend in Florida agreed: “It is an absolute privilege to have a job where I can telecommute,” she told me. “Still, I often feel like I’m shortchanging each side since I can’t linger with my unpaid mom friends at the school drop-off and often have to pretend my kids don’t exist to my colleagues. I guess it all comes down to optics on some level—I’m home, but I’m also at work, which gets confusing, not just for myself, but for those looking in, too.”

Elizabeth Hinkle, a family and marriage therapist at Talkspace, says these feelings are natural. “WFH is going to be the new norm—at least some combination of it, depending on the job type. Shifting to accommodate that means making room for WFH parents, both at work and in our communities,” she explains. On the work front, that might mean a greater emphasis on flexible scheduling and transparency up and down the ladder. On the community level, there needs to be recognition that work from home doesn’t always equate to availability. “It often requires extra support by our schools, daycares and extended friends. Talk about it. Find other WFH parents and create a network,” Hinkle says.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that this problem always existed. “There isn’t too much that the average paid working mom was doing pre-pandemic that she’s not thinking about or managing now,” says Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less. “The difference is that before the pandemic, paid working moms were able to cultivate scaffolding that allowed us to believe that we weren’t doing all of these things.” That scaffolding might have been the nanny who picked your kids up at school or a house cleaner who organized the toy bin and did the laundry. When the pandemic first hit, that network of support evaporated overnight, so it was a lot clearer to see how much moms were managing. “It’s a part of our society that just hasn’t evolved,” Dufu says.

Hearing this, I flashed back to my own attempts at work/life balance circa 2019. Even back then, I was sweating the fact that I couldn’t take my son to his morning gym class and had to rely on videos from friends to witness him nailing his first somersault. Conversely, I would push the exit time from work to the latest possible minute, praying for good subway fortune (a lost cause) and hoping my colleagues would forgive my early goodbye as I attempted to be in two places at once.

But that’s the rub: Now that moms have the option to “do it all” and actually be in two places at once, it illuminates the guilt so many of us face. Who are we? Where do we belong?

Fortunately, there can be an out. In fact, Dufu says this crisis makes for the perfect moment for women (who have the privilege of doing so) to step back and actually identify what they want from their jobs and their family lives. Maybe this means accepting that daily family dinners are not realistic, but family breakfasts are. Maybe it means reorganizing your workday so you are always available for 4 p.m. pickup. Of course, some parts of your dream job description may be impossible but identifying them is the first step towards feeling more intentional in your actions.

Dufu also encourages women to reexamine their own expectations of themselves, and often quotes 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey, who recommends imagining how a friend or family member might eulogize you. “Are they going to say, ‘Well, you know, she got a lot of things done on her to do list?’ Probably not. They’re going to say something more powerful about your impact on the world. Think about what you want that legacy to be and set your priorities and boundaries from there.”

And as for the women who continue to stress about their “in-between” status? Try to remember the upsides. “The experience can feel confusing, yes, but I would argue that the ‘in-between’ can be beneficial to kids because they visibly see their parents more of the day, even if that parent is working from home and even if these moms don’t feel like they are doing a good job in either sphere,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and founder of iRelaunch.com. Adds Hinkle: “It’s about letting go of the idea of what you ‘should’ be doing and focusing on what you are doing. We can’t measure ourselves against an ideal that doesn’t exist.”

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