Baby sits on mother's lap and looks at laptop screen while she works

Having it all? The psychology of work-life balance for single working mothers

Posted on: December 8, 2023

Single mums who have to juggle full-time work with caring for their children can feel torn in two directions at once. Sarah Harrop looks at the psychology of work-life balance and how working parents can strike a healthy balance between them.

What is work-life balance in psychology?

As described in positive, the social science concept of ‘work-life balance’ emerged in the 1970s as more women joined the workforce than had previously been the case. Then, even more than now, the vast majority of American women and their counterparts in Europe and Australia took the primary caregiving role for children. As formal employment of women increased, they found that they had to deal with work-family conflict, juggling both work and family responsibilities.

Today though, the concept has widened beyond working mothers and work-family balance. Demographics have changed and men now play an essential role in child rearing too, and what is more they are not always the breadwinner in the partnership. Gay couples also have to juggle both work and family-life responsibilities, and childless couples and single people should not be excluded from work-life balance considerations.

Furthermore, wider societal pressures for equal labour opportunities and working conditions, along with general changes within industries and attitudes towards the different gender roles within society and in family roles, has put the spotlight on better work-life balance for everyone.

Added to the mix are other changes in the work environment such as advances in technology. Email and smartphones keep us ever more connected to work outside of the office, with increasing work pressure and higher levels of stress as a result.

Work-life balance is based on the idea that there are two or more domains in life which need attention and investment, but not at the sacrifice of one another: work and personal.

A 2008 literature review paper by psychologists Thomas Kalliath and Paula Brough distilled the various definitions of work-life balance into several key points, including:

  • People perform different roles in their life, including a work role and a personal life and family relations role, and the demands of one role can carry over to the demands of another.
  • We should be able to commit equal amounts of time and energy to all of the roles we take on in our lives.
  • We should feel satisfied with our own performance in various life domains and should function as well as possible in them; our performance and function across the different domains shouldn’t clash.
  • The roles that we perform in our life and the importance we assign to them can change – therefore work-life balance satisfaction depends on which we have prioritised and whether our expectations have been met. 
  • Work-life balance is achieved when there is minimal conflict between work and personal roles. It is the degree of autonomy that people have over the demands of various roles and their ability to meet these demands.


Factors affecting work-life balance

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that a healthy work-life balance might involve meeting your deadlines at work while still having time for family members, friends and hobbies; having enough time to sleep properly and eat well; and not worrying about work when you’re at home.

Some of the things that can make this quality of life difficult include childcare responsibilities, caring responsibilities for an elderly relative, having a demanding boss, or perhaps having to deal with your own health problems while holding down a job.

So what are the predictors of an unhealthy work-life balance that put you at risk of burnout? The Harvard Business Review suggests regularly checking the health of your work-life balance by following five steps: 

  1. Pause. Ask yourself what the cause of your stress is, how it’s affecting your life, and what you are prioritising.
  2. Listen to your feelings. Now you have considered your situation, how does it make you feel?
  3. Reprioritise. What needs to change? For example, is it worth putting in the long work hours if you’re losing time with your children? Can you switch from full-time to part-time?  
  4. Consider your alternatives. Is there anything at work you can change to meet your new priorities?
  5. Make a change. That might be asking for flexible work arrangements, using up all of your annual leave, or not checking emails at weekends.

Balancing work and children

Working parents can face major life conflict, torn between the competing priorities of keeping their career progressing while trying to be the best parent they can to their children. On the one hand there is the ‘mum guilt’ or ‘dad guilt’ that working parents feel – that they are not spending enough time with their kids, perhaps missing their first steps, being absent at their piano recital, or not being there at the school gate to hear all about their day. On the other hand, working parents can feel that they are not giving enough as an employee and suffer work-related guilt as they dash out of the office on the dot of 5pm to do the nursery pick-up, or often having to take days off work to care for their young children when they are sick.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance for working parents is not impossible though. Some ten top tips for finding time for your kids while maintaining job satisfaction from the All Pro Dad website include:

  • Diarise your kids. Treat time with your kids as you would deal with putting a meeting into your calendar. Put them into your work schedule officially, and stick to the commitment.  
  • Keep your core values front and centre. Keeping constantly aware of your core values helps you find a better balance and stops you getting caught up in the things that don’t matter in the long term.
  • Inject some fun into your home life. There’s a time for serious work, and there’s a time for play. Make fun part of your relationship with your kids and let them see your own inner child.
  • Delegate and ask for help at work from co-workers. You don’t have to do everything on your own; building a team will open up more time and energy for your children.
  • Streamline your time management.  Take a look at how you spend your time and eliminate time wasters to give you more time with your loved ones and your work.
  • Stay flexible. Sometimes work may require extra hours. Conversely, sometimes family may take precedence. When you’re willing to adjust accordingly, you will feel more at peace with your work/life balance.

How do single mums manage to balance work and life?

“For a long time, single working parents have had to do it all — and since the Covid-19 pandemic began, they are under the greatest strain. Their time is scarce, they have extra demands, and potentially fewer resources. This all leads to one thing: burnout.” So say Brigid Schulte and Stavroula Pabstin in a Harvard Business Review article on combating stress as a single working parent.

Even with an employer and a human resources department that is fully committed to flexible working and family-friendly working arrangements, the pandemic with its restrictions and quarantines made it near impossible for single working parents to cope. They were required to juggle work calls, meetings and all their usual work demands with childcare and home schooling, as well as doing grocery shopping, making dinner, and putting the children to bed. Add to that all the usual ‘life admin’ tasks to keep a household running smoothly, from picking up prescriptions to paying bills – and having to manage all of this alone – and you have a recipe for burnout.

While wider work systems and culture are the main culprit behind employee work burnout, it’s still possible to take action to help yourself at an individual level, say Schulte and Pabstin. They suggest: 

  • Seeing the big picture – and understanding that burnout isn’t a personal failure and is not something to feel guilty or ashamed about.
  • Lowering your demands – cut yourself some slack and tap into your strengths. For example if you’re an optimist and have a strong work ethic and a good sense of humour, think how you can leverage such strengths more intentionally.
  • Keeping track of small wins – keeping note of the little day-to-day achievements can really help, even if it’s absences – getting through the day without a tantrum, for example.  
  • Asking for help – whether it’s another mum on the school run or your neighbours.
  • Taking a break and resting while you can. Train your kids to understand when you need some quiet time. 

How does a parent’s work-life balance affect children?

While you’d be hard pressed to find a working parent who hasn’t felt guilty about missing their child’s performance in the school Christmas play or at sports day, does a parent’s work-life balance have any effect on their children?

In one detailed study published in 2000, researchers surveyed nearly 900 professionals about their relationships with their work and their children, and found that children of parents who worked, even for long hours, were not negatively affected. The key finding though was that parents who were distracted or even obsessed by their work did see an impact on their children. This is likely only more problematic today when digital devices are always with us.

Stewart D Friedman at Harvard Business Review’s take on this is, “Don’t worry about whether you attend every soccer game. But when you do show up, put your phone down and be there for your kid.”

Stressors and disadvantages facing single mothers

Being a single mother can feel overwhelming and emotionally challenging. For a start, single mums have nobody else to turn to when they are having a bad day, or they are under stress or just need a break from the 24/7 responsibility of child-rearing.

After spending the day working full-time and then coming home to your second role as solo parent, it’s easy for a single mother to forget to take care of herself; she may begin to lose her sense of self and neglect her own needs. Self-doubt can also creep in when you have no other adult around who agrees or disagrees with your parenting methods.

Single parents must make all the big decisions on their own, from which new dishwasher to buy to which school their children should attend. Money worries and anxiety often loom large for single mothers, too, because they must support a family on one salary. And in contrast, when the kids are with their other parent, or after their little ones are in bed and the house is silent, many single mums also grapple with loneliness.

Single parent journalist and blogger Rebecca Cox offers some words of advice in her open letter to working single mums published in Harper’s Bazaar during the pandemic: “The next time you feel like the weight of the world is too heavy, and you’re not coping with all it asks of you, put a little down. Give yourself a break. Remember that the important things in your world are yourself and your children – anything else can be set aside until you’re strong enough to pick it up again.”


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