Parenting Is Not a Zero Sum Game!

From Evelyn Tsitas, an exceptionally useful blog post about what it took for her to write her thesis:

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’


Low expectations, complacency and laziness* are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

AMEN. A common thing that holds parents–and, especially, in my experience, moms–back is the zero-sum idea that their success must come at their children’s expense. But the only way to accomplish something big–whether it’s writing a thesis or book, starting a business, getting/staying in shape, or doing substantial political or community work–is to devote significant time to it. This means that, for sure, you’re going to have to stop doing some things you’re already doing, in parenting and other areas of life. (*Note: I’m not keen on using labels like “complacency” and “laziness”–disempowerment being the root cause of underproductivity–but the rest holds true.)

And you’re almost certainly going to have to stop doing some things most other parents do.

People who don’t come to terms with this reality often remain ambivalent, i.e., stuck between two seemingly-opposing goals. It’s a really unpleasant, not to mention, unproductive, place to be. And it doesn’t help if you perfectionistically constantly measure your performance against an idealized version of your role, so that it becomes a battle between your “superparent” and “superachiever” personae.

The solutions are to:

(1) Get real about your time, energy, and other constraints. This may involve saying goodbye to:

  • A goal you really want to accomplish, only not as much as some other goals. (You can return to it later if you want.) And,
  • An image of yourself as some kind of superachiever.

(It’s okay, and probably a good idea, to mourn these losses.)

You do this by creating a weekly time budget and schedule to figure out how, exactly, you want to invest your precious time. (Detailed instructions in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific and here are some helpful forms you can download free.)

(2) Stop seeing parenting as a zero-sum game. Your kids will benefit enormously from watching you wrestle with conflicting goals, make tough choices, defend your schedule and priorities, and otherwise make the best of things in an imperfect world. Also from your modeling hard work and perseverance. As Tsitas reports:

The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school. And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to….

He wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done.

One of my own precious childhood memories is that of the summer my father took a math course he needed for a work promotion. I particularly remember him doing his homework at our community pool, sitting quiet and focused at a shaded table while everyone around us was running around having fun in the sun. Even at age nine, I was impressed by his dedication.

Which brings us to…

(3) Ask Your Kid. Even the little ones are capable of understanding this situation and supporting you. So, level with your kid: “Mom loves spending time with you, but it’s also really important that she work on her novel, and she feels bad when she doesn’t. Do you have any ideas for solving this problem?” (Also see the “Encouraging Cooperation” chapter of the parenting classic, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, a communications primer I recommend to everyone regardless of parental status.) Some of the best moments in my teaching career have come from people reporting the results of these kinds of discussions. One five-year-old pondered for just a moment before suggesting that she and her dad, “do our homework together.” So every evening, the two of them sat side-by-side at the dining room table, he working on his business plan and she doing her coloring, with her occasionally pausing to “check his work.”

Just be prepared for some uncomfortable truths, like when your kid reveals that, no, it’s not actually important to him that you attend his soccer practices. Or, when your kid reminds you–as the four-year-old daughter of another of my students reminded her mom when she offered to read a second bedtime story–“Isn’t it time for you to start studying, Mommy?”

If you have thoughts or suggestions on balancing parenting with other goals, please leave them in the comments!

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