Balance for working parents in emotionally demanding jobs

Guest post by Nikki Mayeux
This originally appeared on
This originally appeared on

There are days when I find myself doing things I swore I wouldn’t do — bribing them with junk food, or using screen time as a reward. There are days when they test my boundaries so much that I’d swear they’ve got a bet going over who can make me cry or curse first. There are days when I’ve cleaned up three separate bodily fluids by noon, and haven’t had a single break to expel any myself.

And this is all BEFORE I leave work to go home to my kid.

As a high school special education teacher working with a high-needs population, my work life mirrors my parenting life in a lot of ways. Many of which are heartwarming — the thrill of seeing young minds master new skills, the handmade thank-you cards on special occasions. And others that are less picturesque — the tantrums, the attention-seeking behavior… did I mention the bodily fluids?

The balancing act

I can say with certainty that being a special educator has made me a better parent, and being a parent has made me a better special educator. I remember distinctly the day that I learned about the strategy of giving “what to do” directions during my teacher training (“Keep your eyes on the speaker and voices off,” rather than the abstract “Pay attention”) and having my first thought be ‘I can’t wait to try this when I get home.’ But there are struggles as well. Real ones. As I’m sure any parents who are nurses, social workers, or therapists will tell you, taking care of tiny humans while pursuing a career in caregiving can rock your world and wreck you emotionally if you’re not careful.

I had my own wake-up call this past school year. After a particularly difficult day at work, I snapped at my 3-year-old over something minor that totally didn’t warrant such an overreaction. As I registered the hurt in her eyes, I realized what had happened — I had given so much of my patience to my students that day, there was none left for my own child when she needed it. After a good long cry and some consolation ice cream (for both of us), I knew I needed to start being more intentional about my work/life balance if I didn’t want my psyche to implode like a dying star of stress and guilt.

Making a plan

This is a journey I am still on and I’m not anywhere close to perfect. There are many days where I suck at it, a lot. But on the better ones, these are a few of the strategies I’ve put in place to preserve my sanity and ensure that everyone in my life—myself included—gets the care they deserve.

1. Create a conscious mental shift from working parent life to home life

My school network has recognized the need for better staff work/life balance. And, as part of that initiative, they manually shut down internal email communications on evenings and weekends. Which is awesome. But only I can shut down my brain. As difficult as it can be when a student has been going through something traumatic, or the lessons plans just aren’t working, I have to make a conscious decision to STOP thinking about it so I can be fully present with my family. And honestly, have I ever come up with some brilliant solution to a work-related problem while anxiously perseverating on it as my daughter is trying to show me her new karate moves? Not even once.

2. Be honest with my kid when I’ve had a hard day

Some folks may disagree, but I believe in a pretty high level of emotional transparency with children, even at a young age. I keep everything in age-appropriate terms, of course, but I let my daughter see me cry when I’m upset, and I try my best to answer her honestly when she asks me how I’m feeling. Some days this sounds like, “Mama had to do a lot of hard things at work today, and I’m feeling a little sad and tired, but it has nothing to do with you. In fact, you make me feel better just by being you. Let’s make a smoothie and watch Tangled.”

3. Keep “me time” sacred

This is especially important for us contemplative introvert-y types. I’ve realized recently, though, I have to make the distinction between what I’ll call “empty calorie” time — where I just browse the internet mindlessly or binge watch a Netflix show and call it self-care — and “nourishing” time — where I engage in activities that bring me real satisfaction and healing, like writing, exercising, prayer, tinkering with herbal stuff, or sex.

The bottom line

Every working parent can benefit from applying these principles. But for those of us in high-risk or emotionally demanding professions, it becomes a matter of survival. A burnout is no good to anyone, but with some healthy boundaries and a lot of intentionality, one may just be able to make this whole crazy thing work. After all, who doesn’t want quadruple the poorly-spelled, lovingly-colored crayon-and-construction-paper cards on their birthday? My refrigerator will be forever full.

Comments on Balance for working parents in emotionally demanding jobs

  1. As a nurse and Mom, I would have many many things to say on this. Your article is a great great starting point and a reminder we all need, especially the self-care aspect.

    I would like to share a simple trick that was given my kiddo by special educator in kindergarten. She is anxious by nature, and PTSD from a home-invasion made going to sleep very very difficult. It works as well in the context of splitting work and home than onset insomnia, both caused by “brain whirl” as kiddo says.

    She switches off. Your brain is a computer. If you don’t turn it off, it will continue buzzing and searching for solutions. You need to manually turn it off. Imagine your brain switches on your forehead, and when you need it, you just switch your brain off.

    (For some reason, kiddo has three flick switches and one dimmer that she turns off last that goes Pshouuuuuuuuh. She always used that imagery, and has been faithfully switching off every night for three years.)

    It works! It’s a simple visualisation, but it is miraculous just how well it works. Consciously recognizing the need to switch off and then the physical act of doing it (this is important, you really need to take your hand and manually flick those invisible switches.) actually helps the split. I suppose other visualisations would work, this one is just easy. I may have been switching off during my commute for a couple years too…

    Actually, my 30 minute commute is the special me-time buffer zone I use to go from work to Mom. Yeah loud music and open windows!

  2. These are great tips! I am a kindergarten teacher in training and already I can’t seem to switch my brain off when I come home. I will be trying to start a family next year and I really value being able to give the best of me to my children. I guess it’s something worth planning for now! I will be saving these tips for the future!

  3. Thank you for this. My husband and I are working very hard to find the right balance. I’m a teacher, and he’s a funeral director. I find that daily check-ins, especially at the end of the day are really helpful, because they provide space for us to prepare in case the other had an especially hard day.

    We’re also more conscious of scheduling family time on the calendar, even if it’s as simple as “movie night”, “leaf walk” or “Ikea date”.

  4. Not a parent, but a counselor in community mental health with can mean lots of second-hand trauma that I don’t want to bring home to my husband and friends. My supervisor told me about a great concept called “energy work” which is really effective (regardless of how much you believe in auras, energy fields, etc).

    Imagine your connection with the person(s) that you work with in your job – it can be a rope, a fishing line, an awesome Harry-Potter-esque beam of light, and then disconnect it. Physically mime cutting the line, disconnecting it, casting a spell, whatever. Then visualize your energy transfer stopping.

    Or if you’re working in an environment with lots of individual things to stress about, imagine them all as sticky blobs clinging onto you, and pull them off. Use your hands to grab the blobs and throw them away! Your brain will thank you for it. 🙂

    For me personally, I also have to make sure that my self-care is a blend of meditating (actually meditating, watering my plants, taking a bath, petting my cat), distracting (Netflix binge FTW), and processing (journaling, prayer, talking it out with a loved one). Too much of any one thing and I can tell I’m not in balance.

  5. “Be honest with my kid when I’ve had a hard day”

    I like this one. My Mother worked as a nurse and had days where she worked 12 hours, drove 4 hours for commuting, and had to take a nap. There had been days where she sat us down and explained she had a very hard day and needed out help. I remember getting that and went on my best behavior. Kids can understand a lot more than what people expect.

    • I absolutely do this with my older kids (the 2 year old is too young to get it). I’m a SAHM so it’s more often that I’ve had a rough day/haven’t slept because someone is sick (or teething!). After years of doing it for my husband he’s finally starting to verbalize his feelings when he’s overstressed/over tired/sick. I think it’s incredibly helpful for kids to see all emotions normalized and learn that it’s ok to ask for help. I can also say that “Mama needs you to be quiet because she has a migraine” results in kids who are quiet exponentially longer than just telling them to be quiet does.

  6. As a veterinary nurse in a busy ER/ICU, I can absolutely relate to these feelings. My son is 9mos old and I have been struggling with how to handle my own burnout\compassion fatigue. This has been compounded by my husband and I needing to work opposite schedules. Thank you for sharing some of your strategies!

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