• Dina Smith

4 questions for working parents to ask themselves to stay mentally fit


(Originally published in Fast Company. Photo: SeventyFour/iStock)


Throughout the past months of the coronavirus pandemic, working parents have faced significant challenges as they’ve attempted to juggle both work and childcare.


Across the board, working parents have been strapped with an increase in overall workload, a massive upheaval of routine, and steep financial costs. It’s obvious the buildup is taking a personal toll. Stress levels and burnout among working parents are high, and many report that they’re in survival mode. Alarmingly, Lean In and McKinsey found recently that one in four women are considering scaling back their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to the impact of COVID-19.

In the early months of the pandemic, working parents implemented numerous hacks to juggle work, childcare, and online learning. As we continue dealing with intense demands from both work and home and brace for ongoing turmoil and pressure, what strategies remain?

Through interviewing working parents and reflecting on my own experience, what emerged as most helpful for stressed parents was choosing four mindsets. Specifically, embracing attitudes of “good enough,” gratitude, laughter, and self-compassion.

To strengthen these uplifting mindsets, ask yourself the following questions daily. As you endure the next few months of ongoing upheaval, they can help you celebrate the holidays with more joy and reduce your stress levels.

WHAT IS GOOD ENOUGH? From the expectations you hold about your work product to those you keep for yourself and others at home, now is a good time to lower the bar. As one vice president of a major healthcare company told me, “You have to revisit your standards, because what was reasonable in the past simply isn’t now.”

Let go of the fraught notion of always doing and being your personal best. Embrace good enough. Holding unrealistically high expectations for ourselves and others only sets us up for feelings of failure, disappointment, and anxiety. Lighten up your expectations of what is acceptable and feel more at peace.


WHAT CAN I BE THANKFUL FOR? Gratitude is strongly linked to greater happiness. Feeling grateful generates positive emotions and helps you savor positive experiences, overcome adversity, strengthen your relationships, and improve your health.

While this is undoubtedly a difficult time with a variety of negative stressors, it’s still possible to find some good in what has happened or what is happening. For example, despite it being a horrible fiscal year, one sales leader (and coaching client of mine) told me he appreciated how working at home allowed him to see his kids participate in school, something he had previously missed due to his intense travel schedule.

In my own life, after enduring the fires and suboptimal air quality in California this fall, I felt nearly giddy when I awakened to a blue sky and fresh air—two things I had previously taken for granted. Ask yourself what little things you can be thankful for.

WHAT CAN I LAUGH ABOUT? The scientific benefits of laughter are, literally, no joke. Laughter boosts the endorphins released by your brain, activates your stress response, soothes muscular tension, improves your immune system, lifts mood, and helps you strengthen your social bonds.

So while this is a difficult time and the news can be terrifying, intentionally looking for the amusing can provide a welcome salve to the steady stream of stress. For example, the other night, when I was exhausted after a long day of working and parenting, my dog was blasted by a skunk. As my family and I repeatedly bathed Picco late at night in an odd home-based remedy we found on the internet (to no avail), we faced a choice about how to respond. And we chose to laugh at the ongoing absurdity, which felt great.

There are so many trying and difficult moments right now, but even in the darkest ones, you can find something funny that will make you bowl over with laughter. Seize opportunities to escape your stressful situation for a few moments and enjoy the release of laughing out loud. Not only will you feel better, but thanks to the process of emotional contagion, you’ll also raise the spirits of those around you.


HOW WOULD I TREAT A FRIEND? It’s never easy being a full-time working parent, and the current conditions are making it more difficult. So when you’ve missed a deadline at work, your house is a mess, and you find yourself reaching for another unhealthy snack, grant yourself some forgiveness.

Many people mistakenly believe that being self-critical and tough on themselves is required for success. However, self-criticism oftentimes leads to negative emotions and makes you weaker in the face of failures and therefore less likely to learn from them. Inadequacies, failings, and sufferings are part of being human. Self-compassion, or treating yourself as you would a friend when you’re faced with suffering or failure, is a far more productive choice. Self-compassion reduces anxiety and builds greater resilience, strength, and happiness.

Adopting a self-compassionate perspective is what allowed one executive at a major payments technology company to maintain her composure and laugh when as she was presenting to 2,000 people during a videoconference she was suddenly accompanied by the screeching sounds of her fifth-grade daughter practicing the clarinet. When you accept your humanity and treat yourself as you would a friend, you’ll open yourself up to feeling more compassion for both yourself and others.

Being a full-time working parent is uniquely challenging right now. And while so much is currently out of your control, you can choose the expectations you set for yourself and how you approach each day. Now is the time to let go, be thankful for little things, laugh whenever you can, and be kind to yourself. Give yourself the gift of these mindsets, and you will find a bit more joy and peace.

© 2021 Cognitas LLC