How to Be a Career-Loving Parent

In her insanely popular book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg relays the story of how Caroline O'Connor reconciled her love of work and love of parenting to design a balanced life. Former Storyteller-in-Chief and lecturer at the Stanford, and current product marketing manager for education for Google, O'Connor approached her apparently conflicting goals (the desire to kick ass at being a designer and the desire to kick ass at being a mom) as a design problem and, in the process, coined a new term: "career-loving parent." Adopting this minor turn of phrase has the potential to transform the way many so-called "working parents" feel about both their careers and their families.

"Working parent" is a phrase that defeats our dreams of doing more than one thing with our lives. It implies that we are parents first, but -- thanks to the injustices of the socioeconomic systems in which we're trapped -- we have to go to work, leaving our children to forage for food scraps and education in the dumpsters behind Whole Foods. Through that phrase, we resign ourselves to the dominant work-life balance paradigm -- to the idea that if we can't have it all, we'll settle for nothing instead.

More importantly, the idea of being a "working parent" means that every time we find ourselves really enjoying our work -- in the flow of doing something really good or important or satisfying and doing it well -- that enjoyment is tempered with guilt and shame. Surely, nothing we're doing in that moment is as important as the work of being a parent.

And maybe that's true. Parenting is a pretty awesome responsibility and requires intense commitment and focus. But what if you could love your job and love being a parent at the same time? What if you could be as committed to your family as you are to your work? What if you discarded the work-devotion schema and the family-devotion schema, and instead, focused on living a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life? If you did that, you might just consider yourself, as Caroline O'Connor considers herself, a "career-loving parent." Sound like a better life? Let's dig in.

How to be a career-loving parent

Let's not kid ourselves though (if you'll pardon the pun). It's way easier to resign ourselves to the old compromise-riddled, settle-for-nothing paradigm of work-life balance than to try to design the life of a career-loving parent. If you're not up for the hard work required to get there, you might want to just quit reading here and turn your attention back to your complaints.

But if finding fulfillment in both work and parenting sounds like a worthwhile mission to you, read on. It's hard work, but I'll break it down into three simple steps:

  1. Know your work-life style. Do you like to integrate work with the rest of your life, separate work from the rest of your life, or do you like to switch focus back and forth as needed?
  2. Know your work options. In today's world of work, there are more choices than just working outside the home or staying home with the family.
  3. Get smart. Regardless of your work-life style and your particular work arrangement, you can make the most of your circumstances with a few simple tricks.
In the next installment in this series, we'll get real freaken real about these steps and what's involved. For now, I'd love to hear your reactions. Do you think it's possible to be a great parent and a great professional? Do you think you can love your family, love your job, and love your life? Is guilt the price you just have to pay for having it all? Let's get the debate going in the comments below.