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Your Personal Work-Life Balance May Be Shaped By Childhood

The twenty-first century struggle for work-life balance is so elusive not only because of our frenetic lives, but also because of the personal differences in what provides fulfillment and satisfaction. And it turns out, the way we prioritize those elements of personal fulfillment may be shaped by what we experience in our childhood homes, according to a study co-authored by Dr Ioana Lupu from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Previous work-life balance research has focused more on the organisational context or on individual psychological traits to explain work and career decisions. However, this new study, published in Human Relations, highlights the important role of our personal history and what we subconsciously learn from our parents.

“We are not blank slates when we join the workforce — many of our attitudes are already deeply engrained from childhood,” according to co-author by Dr Ioana Lupu.

The study argues that our beliefs and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often formed and shaped in the earliest part of our lives. One of the most powerful and enduring influences on our thinking may come from watching our parents.

The study shows a number of differences between women and men who grew up in ‘traditional’ households where the father had the role of breadwinner while the mother managed the household. Male participants who grew up in this kind of household tended to be unaffected by the guilt often associated with balancing work and family.

Women on the other hand were much more conflicted — they reported feeling torn in two different directions. Women who had stay-at-home mothers “work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers,” says Dr Lupu. This gap between what women are told they can achieve, and what societal conditioning is telling them about the primacy of their parenting responsibilities, can explain why a lot of educated, successful women drop out of the workforce after having children.

“We have found that the enduring influence of upbringing goes some way towards explaining why the careers of individuals, both male and female, are differentially affected following parenthood, even when those individuals possess broadly equivalent levels of cultural capital, such as levels of education, and have hitherto pursued very similar career paths,” says Dr Lupu.

She says the research raises awareness of the gap that often exists between unconscious expectations and conscious ambitions related to career and parenting.

“If individuals are to reach their full potential, they have to be aware of how the person that they are has been shaped through previous socialisation and how their own work and family decisions further reproduce the structures constraining these decisions,” says Dr Lupu. These are important words to keep in mind as we raise the next generation of parents and workers.

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