Episode 121: How to Be a (Happy) Working Parent with Corrina Gordon Barnes
Balancing work and parenthood is a challenge – but it really is possible to thrive as a working parent! It starts with unlearning unhelpful thoughts and behaviours about work, parenting, and co-parenting.
In this episode, Corrina Gordon-Barnes joins us to discuss the common struggles of working parents and the things we need to unlearn. She shares how to take radical responsibility as a parent and delegate responsibilities from housework to emotional load. We also teach you how to stay in your zone of genius and accept help when you need it. It’s time to live a life you love and enjoy, even amidst all your responsibilities!
If you’re struggling to balance work and parenting, stay tuned to this episode.
3 reasons to listen to the full episode:
- Learn how to let go of unhelpful thoughts and behaviours like parenting guilt, rescuer tendencies, and gender normative expectations.
- Understand how staying in your zone of genius can make you happier.
- Discover the importance of delegating housework and the family’s emotional load.
[04:55] Introducing Corrina
- Corrina is a career and leadership coach specialising in challenging colleague relationships. She has also been coaching working parents recently.
- People don’t live in a vacuum. Anyone who works has other things going on in their lives.
- Corrina has three children. Her first son passed away during labour, while her second son is 21 months old. Corrina is currently 30 weeks pregnant.
‘No one really is just working within a vacuum. I think everyone would do well to consider themselves and their colleagues to be working somethings, even if not working parents.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[07:54] Struggles of Working Parents
- Corrina shares that many people lose confidence in work after parental leave.
- People returning from parental leave often find that processes, colleagues, and the work environment have changed.
‘A common issue is a lack of confidence. Not for everybody at all, but for some people, having been out of the workplace for maybe nine months, a year, even, there’ll be a lack of confidence, or kind of a knock to the confidence, just because the world of work has moved on.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
- They are also usually sleep-deprived and may not be as clear-headed as before.
- They may also come back in with a part-time role, which some workplaces may deem less valuable than full-time roles.
- Working parents may also struggle with the parenting role since there is no way to validate or test someone when it comes to parenting.
‘But where do we get the validation that we’re good at being parents? Because there is no rulebook, there is no exam to pass. It’s just us with our child or with our children going, “Yeah, am I doing okay here?”’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[13:04] Differences in Becoming a Parent
- People without children can be more adaptable. They can adjust and catch up with work.
- Parents will not have the same flexible schedule as they used to have; they need to save time for their children.
- Parents may also find it difficult to rest and do what they want.
[16:03] How to Manage Parenting Guilt
- Parents may feel guilty for taking time off without their children.
- Corrina reminds parents that there are people in their lives who would love to spend time with their children.
- When people offer to help you, it’s best to say yes. Remember that you are part of a community.
‘That would be a big bit of advice, really, is that when people are offering to help, whether it’s to take your child for a few hours or to cook for you or shop for you or do anything for you, you just say yes.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[19:04] Balancing Responsibilities
- Women doctors often feel guilty and pressure themselves to do everything at home.
- We often have expectations and beliefs about our identity formed by our parents and society.
- Corrina reminds parents that it’s not about getting ‘help’ from their partners because it’s a shared responsibility. It’s not helping out — it’s their job.
- Learn to overcome the old narrative that only one person in the relationship should do all the housework and carry the emotional load while the other helps out.
- Gender should not dictate your role anywhere. Corrina suggests reflecting with your partner about what you enjoy and feasibly contribute.
‘Gender doesn’t actually make you better at these things or make you enjoy things more. I know plenty of men who like cooking more than women, and women who like cars or DIY more than men.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[26:28] How to Delegate at Home
- Roles in workplaces tend to be well-defined.
- You can apply your leadership and workplace protocols to your family life. It’s a good idea to delegate who is in charge of specific tasks.
- It would be best to have regular, intentional conversations to check whether your setup is still working.
- Learn to let go and allow your partner to take on responsibility.
‘What really helped was her thinking about how she did rotas at work. Just like at work, she was clear that at work you knew whose role was what, and whose responsibility was what, and therefore whose mental load was where.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[30:42] The Dangers of Being a Rescuer
- The Drama Triangle models how drama forms when we take on the roles of the villain, victim, or rescuer.
- The rescuer wants short-term relief and tends to step in to fix things. This approach will not solve long-term issues.
- Corrina reminds parents that it’s more important to have long-term solutions. Learn to move away from being a rescuer and become a coach.
- Remember that always taking all the responsibility will have long-term consequences.
- Being a rescuer won’t help people. Over time, you’ll even feel resentful for taking on the responsibility, and you’re teaching your partner or children learned helplessness.
‘There’ve been, I believe, lots of studies into resilience and how children benefit from feeling their own sense of competence and independence and self-sufficiency.’ – Click Here to Tweet This
[35:30] Why You Need to Have a Coach Mindset
- As healthcare professionals, we are used to solving people’s problems. However, this should not be our approach to parenting.
- We cannot solve our children’s problems, nor should we control everything they do. Children need to learn to make their own way.
- Corrina recommends taking on the mindset of a coach.
- Trust that your children can solve their problems, but be available to listen or guide them.
[38:35] How to Have an Easier Life as a Working Parent
- Be intentional about your priorities and wants.
- Remember that not everything will be in your control. When difficult things happen, work on what you can control.
- Learn to set and hold onto boundaries without apologies.
- Communicate so you can make the situation the best it can be.
[40:35] Stay in Your Zone of Genius
- Everyone can operate in 4 different zones: incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius.
- Parents need to stay in their zone of genius for parenting. Your zone of genius will not feel like work because it’s the easiest way of being you.
- If you don’t like doing something with your child because you’re not competent at it, it will be better to have someone else do that activity with them.
- Corrina recommends knowing your friends’ zone of genius. This can help expose your child to different activities.
- Ignore gender roles and focus on strengths instead.
[45:37] Corrina’s Top 3 Tips
- Learn to see everyone around you as an ally. If you and your partner are not good at certain things, look for friends or relatives who are.
- Don’t be a victim; take radical responsibility.
- Always follow your zone of genius.
Corrina Gordon-Barnes is a coach and trainer focusing on how to better relationships. Her vision is for workplaces to have colleagues speak honestly, give and receive feedback gracefully and act with integrity. With 16 years of experience, Corrina has been described as HR’s ‘secret advantage’, helping workplaces build internal relationships and think through the most vital issues.
Corrina helps organisations by offering one-to-one coaching to both emerging and senior leaders. She also delivers training for new managers in coaching skills, time management, handling difficult conversations and giving effective feedback.
If you want to know more about Corrina and her work, visit Corrina’s website or follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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By the way, when I say help, I am not referring to partners helping. Partners do not help. This is one of my bugbears. Partners don’t get to help because it’s not your job to do the things. If you’re in a partnership, having children—I strongly believe that it is your shared responsibility.
So neither of you actually help the other one, because that would kind of imply that it was one of your job to start with, which we definitely see a lot. Anytime someone says, ‘Oh, they’ve helped me out with housework,’ or ‘They’ve helped me out with the childcare.’ If that’s your partner, that’s not helping out. That’s their job.
Rachel Morris: Do you struggle with parenting guilt, whether it’s guilt for not being at work enough so you can look after the kids or spending too much time and work away from the family? Or perhaps you’re currently not a parent, and you struggle with the ways in which your colleagues are dealing with working and parenting?
But do you also struggle to escape from the traditional gender roles that you have been brought up with or that society still seems to expect from us? Do you sometimes suspect that you’re your own worst enemy when it comes to carrying the emotional load for the family? Whatever your age, gender, or sexuality—balancing life, home, and family is a challenge.Whatever we do, however hard we try, sometimes it feels like we just can’t win.
This week on the podcast, we’re thinking about how to ditch the guilt around working parents, whether you are one or work with one. Parenting is a thorny subject, and one I’ve tended to shy away from addressing directly so far on You Are Not A Frog. The bitter experience tells me that things are still far from equal when it comes to working parents—with one partner often carrying a disproportionately bigger emotional load than the other. Also, many of our listeners will be parenting on their own, either through choice or through unexpected circumstances.
On this episode, we’re joined by You Are Not A Frog regular and leadership coach Corrina Gordon-Barnes. We discuss our unhealthy thought patterns and behaviours when it comes to working, parenting, and co-parenting. Think about some of the ways in which we need to get out of our own way and ask for help that we need. Get more team around us, not just at work but at home, to offer support and assist us with things we know are not in our own zone of genius.
Now, since we recorded this podcast episode, Corrina and Sam have had their third child, a little girl, so very many congratulations to them. Parenting is something that affects us all. Even if you don’t have kids yourself, you’ll either have them in the future, or be working with people who do. Listen to this episode to find out why we need to ditch the guilt associated with working and parenting. How to approach the delegation of tasks at home in the same way as tasks at work. Discover how to recognize when we are being our own worst enemy—taking on too much of the emotional load.
Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, a podcast for doctors and busy professionals in healthcare and other high-stress jobs—if you want to beat burnout, and work happier. I’m Dr Rachel Morris, a former GP, now working as a coach, speaker, and specialist in resilience at work. Like frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water, many of us have found that exhaustion and stress are slowly becoming the norm. But you are not a frog. You don’t have to choose between burning out or getting out.
In this podcast, I’ll be talking to friends, colleagues, and experts—all who have an interesting take on this and inviting you to make a deliberate choice about how you will live and work. In healthcare at the moment, people are struggling with overwhelming demand, increasing patient expectations, and spiralling workloads. Until we develop the ability to time travel or add in a couple of extra hours to the day, we’re going to have to face reality and admit that we really can’t do everything. This means accepting our limits, setting boundaries, and sometimes saying no in order to continue to be able to do our best at work.
Throughout May and June, we’re releasing a brand new mini video series all about how healthcare teams can prioritise powerfully, say no with confidence, and fall back in love with their work. You can get this free mini series by clicking on the link in the show notes. If it’s helpful, please do share it with your colleagues. It’s really good to have with me back on the podcast again, Corrina Gordon-Barnes. Hi, Corrina.
Corrina Gordon-Barnes: Hello. It’s like a second home for me.
Rachel: We always love it when you were here, Corrina. For listeners who haven’t yet met Corrina, Corrina is a certified coach. She’s a career and leadership coach, in fact. She specialises in tricky colleague relationships, in confidence, and that difficult, “Should I stay or should I go?” dilemma. In fact, we’ve talked about that on a previous podcast, haven’t we?
Corrina: That was a popular one. Yeah. A lot of people are in that position.
Rachel: Yeah, loads and loads of people, and not just in medicine, sort of throughout, well, throughout the world actually. They’re calling it “The Great Resignation after COVID.”
Corrina: Yeah. Yeah, people are reassessing. I think what’s important: what priorities are there.
Rachel: Corrina, is also one of our Shapes trainers. Corrina, you’ve been doing a lot of work recently around working parents and how to balance life as a working parent and coaching people who are new parents or been parents for a while and maybe struggling with work and parenting.
We thought it would be really good to have a chat about this because lots and lots of listeners are parenting as well as working. I guess even if you aren’t parenting right now, you might have grown up kids, you might not have any kids, but you certainly work with people who do have childcare responsibilities. That can be really tricky, I think, for both parties, can’t it?
Corrina: Yeah, absolutely. One of the key things is that everyone, I think, everyone who is a working person also has other life going on. Everything that I’ll share today, I imagine, about being a working parent actually also applies to being a working daughter or son. We have sometimes responsibilities to our parents, or if they’re unwell or needing some care, or we have hobbies, or we have side hustles or side projects that we’re working on.
No one really is just working within a vacuum. I think everyone would do well to consider themselves and their colleagues to be working some things, even if not working parents.
Rachel: Yeah, totally. I think maybe it will be good to get full disclosure out at the beginning. I have three children who are currently 17. How old’s the other one? 15 and just 12, and you?
Corrina: I also have three children, slightly different. Our first son was extremely premature; he came just before 23 weeks, and he died during labour. That’s our first son, Alfie. We have a son who is 21 months, and toddling around—being very gorgeous. I’m currently 30 weeks pregnant with our daughter, who will be our final—our third and final child.
Rachel: So hugely exciting.
Corrina: It really is.
Rachel: Most of my friends’ kids are now sort of secondary school age, so I need more babies to cuddle, Corrina.
Corrina: Well you missed out on cuddling Toby because of the pandemic. Hopefully, you won’t miss out on cuddling this little one. We make really chunky babies. We make chunky, chubby babies. They’re very cuddleable.
Rachel: Brilliant. Brilliant. Okay, so we both know what it’s like to be a working parent.
Rachel: I think that—firstly, good to get that out there. When people get referred to you for coaching or come to you for coaching, Corrina, what do they seem to be struggling? What commonly are they struggling with?
Corrina: A common issue is a lack of confidence. Not for everybody at all, but for some people, having been out of the workplace for maybe nine months, a year, even, there’ll be a lack of confidence, or kind of a knock to the confidence, just because the world of work has moved on—12 months, maybe, within the time they were last at work. They’re having to kind of all those things you just do on default.
I know, for me, when I came back after maternity leave, having Toby—our toddler now. It’s like, ‘How do I do my website update, again? How do I do this?’ Just the things that are so just everyday commonplace that you do—you would do in your sleep, you would do without even thinking about them—just got to remember how do you do them.
Of course, the doctors—there are some, hopefully, many, many, many skills which are just like riding a bike, you’re going to remember just completely. Others, you’ll forget quite how you did them that easily before. Things could have changed. That you could be—you might be a doctor coming back to a hospital where they’ve changed this, some massive system or some massive process, and you’ve actually got to learn afresh how to do something.
You may come back to very different colleagues—the people that you worked with before may have left, you may have new members of staff come in. For some people that I work with, their maternity replacement or their parental leave replacement person, there’s a kind of strange dynamic with that person. Maybe that person has stayed on in a different role, and there’s a bit of competitiveness over, ‘Hang on. Who owns this project? ’ or ‘How do I now interact with this colleague?’
A lot of things will have changed, probably, since someone has been on parental leave. That can be hard, and a lot of people talk about impostor syndrome. So coming back in and feeling like, ‘Hang on. Am I meant to be in this role, still? I don’t feel confident enough that it’s just all ticking over nicely.’ That impostor syndrome can kick in and be really hard.
Also, someone coming back from parental leave can be incredibly sleep deprived. They can be not as clear-headed as they were before. Things could take longer just because of that mental fog of not having as much sleep. Physically, there may still be ramifications of having given birth, or if someone is breastfeeding, then that could have a physical impact.
Certainly, working with people who are still wanting to breastfeed, maybe it will be wanting to pump at work, for example, and the logistics of that. So yeah, so many. I hope that’s given us a little taste of a few of them.
Rachel: Yeah. You haven’t even mentioned actually, the fact that often you come back, and you often come back to a part-time role. Whereas before, you may have been full-time, suddenly come back to a part-time role, which in some workplaces can wrongly be seen as a lesser thing—that they’re less than full-time roles.
You get a lot of, I guess, well, implied or maybe actually overt criticism from other people who aren’t in the less than full-time roles, who see themselves as committed and you as not committed, which I always felt it’s really, really unfair.
Also, I think part of the confidence thing is, when you have kids, you’d suddenly gone from being someone who’s pretty competent in their work to someone who hasn’t got a looping clue about what you’re doing, and you’re just making it up as you go along. I remember it being the first time I ever really, really struggled with thinking, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here.’ So it’s quite a good level, isn’t it, having kids?
Corrina: Well, it is, especially if you have been, maybe, you’ve been sailing through your schooling, your university, your profession—you’ve been very good at it, and you’ve known how to be good at it. There’s been—there have been objectives, there have been exams that you can pass. It’s all been if you read this book, or you do this training, or you pass this particular milestone, you’ve been proven to be good at your job.
But where do we get the validation that we’re good at being parents? Because there is no rulebook, there is no exam to pass. It’s just us with our child or with our children going, ‘Yeah, am I doing okay here?’ That comparison thing can be so, so common that people are comparing themselves with other parents and finding themselves lacking. That can happen a lot as well.
Rachel: Just the fact your kids very, very rarely give you glowing feedback. You probably get lots of lovely cuddles and kisses from Toby. But—
Corrina: I mean, I do. He’s very affirmative. But yeah, you don’t get that same level of surety that you’re doing a good job, do you? You have to self-reference in ways. That maybe at work you reference from others, you reference from appraisals, you reference in what colleagues are saying. With your child, you do have to self-reference more, ‘Am I doing a job that I feel proud of?’
Rachel: Yeah. Then, of course, they’re a completely separate person with all their foibles and amazing bits, and you have no control really. Particularly, as they start going to school and you don’t have any control of their friendships. Then, whenever anything bad happens to them, you feel dreadful, like it’s your fault. Or if they’re not as good at this as someone else, you think, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ Oh my goodness, it’s a complete minefield, isn’t it?
Corrina: Yeah. Another factor as well is the fact that days can be less elastic. When you don’t have children, there can be this feeling that, ‘Well, I’ll catch up later. There’ll be a time in my day where I can catch up with the work I didn’t get done in the day,’ let’s say. Or, ‘I can just kind of stretch my day a little bit, have a meeting a little bit later.’ If you are going to pick up a child from childcare, then you don’t have that same elasticity, you don’t have that same flexibility. That can be very, very hard.
Rachel: I think, coming from where I’m coming out, I’ve not had to change a nappy for a good 10 years, which is very nice. I’m at the point where I can go out in the evening and leave my older children babysitting for my younger children, so I have quite a lot more freedom.
But for me, it’s the emotional load of parenting. I think when the children are younger, you have got that deadline and that lack of elasticity in your day, which is really, really hard. I have never felt so stressed as when I’ve been on call, with a deadline for a childminder, with extra patients to see. I’m sure there’s lots of people can absolutely identify with that. When you’ve got a deadline to pick your child up, you just cannot leave them waiting.
Then, the amount of GPs that I know that go and get their kids and have had to take them on visits with them because they just have no other options. There is that lack of elasticity, and then there’s a lack of recuperation and rest. Whereas when you don’t have dependents, you can spend your time off doing what you want to do and resting in the way that you want to do by and large. But as soon as you have to look after people, you don’t really.
Sometimes, I remember when they were really tiny, thinking even getting an hour free to do what I wanted to do in a week was really amazing. I look back now and think, ‘Actually, why on earth would I feel like that?’ Because I definitely had more time than I could have done. So maybe that’s something we need to talk about in a second.
Corrina: Well, that is often a topic that people—when clients come to me for that one-to-one coaching, or during or after maternity leave. One of their objectives will be that they will set for themselves is, ‘How do I get more “me time”?’ Often, the “me time” is, actually, very not selfish. It’s about becoming healthier, for example, or exercising more, so as to be a better parent or a better worker. So there’s no altruism even running through the “me time” aspect.
Rachel: I think let’s start with that “me time”. Because I look back and think, ‘Why on earth didn’t I?’ I had a little bit of extra childcare. So I used to have two hours on one morning a week where that was my “me time.” I absolutely—that was the highlight of my week, quite frankly, I really needed that time off—never seem long enough. But actually, I’m very fortunate that I do have a partner who—we co-parents, so I have that extra help. I know a lot of people don’t have that luxury.
But we could have divided and conquered and given each other much more time off. I do remember guilt being a large part of my existence. I must say, I have managed to ditch the guilt now. I’m pretty good at not feeling guilty. But when the children were small, I’ve really, really felt bad if I either went away for a night with my friends or even took an afternoon off or did something without them, because I felt I was dumping the children or leaving them with whoever. I’m looking back and thinking that’s ridiculous, but it’s really common, isn’t it?
Corrina: Yeah. Actually, a really good thing to remember is that people in your life, whether it’s family, friends, often love to spend time with your children. It’s a treat for them to have a few hours with them, so it’s—they’re not doing it as a chore. They’re not doing it as, ‘Okay, I better look after your child for you.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. I get to have “grandchild time” or “niece or nephew time”.’
I think that can help with the guilt. Just to feel like, actually, you’ve brought this child into the world or you’ve—you’re raising this child who is not just for you, is for the community, is for lots of people to enjoy and enjoy spending time with. Actually, sharing them around a little bit can help. I know, I certainly know that for us, after Toby was born, how grateful we were for people kind of dropping off food for us or other things that they did to help us in some ways. It’s amazing how people block those offers of help.
That would be a big bit of advice, really, is that when people are offering to help, whether it’s to take your child for a few hours or to cook for you or shop for you or do anything for you, you just say yes. You just say, ‘Yes, thank you.’ I know people who when they have just come home from the hospital, they’ve had their baby, and people will come around and say, ‘Can I help?’ ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, you’re fine,’ or, ‘You sit down, I’ll get you a cup of tea.’
Whereas other people have had a list of things and this—I would fall into this stacking category. A list of things—‘Yes, please come around. Please help. Here are the list of things to do. Please come and do my laundry, cook me a meal, take my child for me so I can have a shower.’
I think there’s something about accepting help and feeling part of a village, part of the community—not feeling like this is your solo responsibility to look after your child. I think being more gracious about accepting help and welcoming help, knowing that people who are offering help actually want to give help, and it actually gives them something fulfilling when they help.
Rachel: That is really important, isn’t it? Well, identifying who can help or what help you could get and then accessing it. I think sometimes we are really our own worst enemies. The amount of people I’ve spoken to—busy doctors I’ve spoken to, mostly women—I’m gonna really try not be gender biassed here—but it does tend to be mostly women who feel guilty about even getting a cleaner.
When they are working all hours god sends—when they are picking up their kids, coming back and then working two or three more hours in the evening, they feel guilty because they think they ought to be doing everything at home as well. I remember getting sort of caught up in that trap, and then eventually looking back, thinking, ‘What on earth was I thinking?’ Why do you think we put all that pressure on ourselves, and particularly women?
Corrina: Yeah, it’s a great question. Why do we? There’s something about identity—so much of what we do, so many actions that we take, because we’re trying to hold a certain identity. Whether it’s something that we think we saw our parents do, or we think we see in society, or we think other people expect, but we have this story, then that’s the identity that somehow we’re meant to have.
Whereas, actually, can we use other examples? Can we look at other people, certainly people that—my life that I can think of where I really respect that they welcome help, or that they pay for help, or that they accept help. By the way, when I say help, I am not referring to partners helping. Partners do not help. This is one of my bugbears. Partners don’t get to help because it’s not your job to do the things. If you’re in a partnership, having children—I strongly believe that it is your shared responsibility.
So neither of you actually help the other one, because that would kind of imply that it was one of your job to start with, which we definitely see a lot. Anytime someone says, ‘Oh, they’ve helped me out with housework,’ or ‘They’ve helped me out with the childcare.’ If that’s your partner, that’s not helping out. That’s their job.
Rachel: Oh, I totally agree. It drives me mad when people say, ‘Oh, my husband’s babysitting tonight.’ No, he’s not babysitting; he’s looking after the children because they’re his children.
Corrina: Yeah, I mean where do we get that identity from, right? I mean, we can look, I’m sure, to all kinds of representations in media and films and all of that. I hope that our generation and the younger ones—I’m an older parent, but I am hopeful that younger generations won’t do that as much. That we’re kind of, we’re trying to dissolve that, shed that old story that somehow it was on one of us to do all the work, and the other one just kind of helps, yeah, helps out.
Rachel: I think that’s really, really hard, though. Because we think we’re very modern women, et cetera, etc. but when I grew up, my mom was at home full-time. She’s a very intelligent woman, she’s a doctor, she gave up work to look after us, and then took 10 years out. Then retrained in ophthalmology and went back into it. I’m very, very grateful to have seen that.
My other half, his mother gave up work and never went back to work. He had a full-time mother, a full-time wife at home, and his dad was a GP. Actually, in those days, it was very, very difficult to be a GP, if you didn’t have a wife because you couldn’t be—you’re on calls. Because you’d be out on call and your wife had to stay at home and take the phone calls from the patients. Then, the wife would bleep the husband.
If you didn’t have a partner, you had to use a call answering service, who would then bleep you and fulfil that role. In a way, we have grown up with those role models. You do then see for people—I think a lot of people my age—that the default position, even if you are working in an equal capacity, the default so obviously goes to the woman.
Now, I know I don’t want to alienate any of our listeners, 50% of our listeners. I really, really don’t. I’m just going to give an example of something that happens. Now, I was on a course, locally. I was just chatting with a really good friend of mine and we were having a little bit of a whinge about the inequality, how it felt of genders, et cetera, etc. Someone, a female GP next to me, pipes up, she said, ‘Oh, you know what, I’d just been listening. I just want to share, I’m really lucky. We’ve completely reversed our roles.’
So she said, ‘I go out to work and my husband is a stay-at-home husband.’ We said, ‘Oh, wow, that must be so amazing to get home to know the children he looks after, and then dinner’s there, the laundry has been done, the cleaning has been done.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, no, he doesn’t do any of that. I do that at the weekend, but he is amazing at looking after the children.’
We nearly fell off our chairs because I thought—can you imagine a man saying that about his wife? Saying, ‘Oh, she’s amazing. She looks after the kids. I mean, I do all the housework at the weekend, but she is amazing.’ Because that’s not what society expects. Even now, when I think about quite a few people that I know, even though they are equal in their employment—the housework, and the emotional load, and the caring responsibilities are definitely not equal. There is always one default parent. Am I being unfair?
Corrina: Well, here’s what I find very liberating myself, being in a same-sex marriage, is that we don’t have that default. It’s like we just get to make it up without all that societal baggage and assumptions. My wife and I, over the years of having the children, have just asked those questions of, ‘Who’s better at what, right?’ I mean, even before we had children, ‘Who’s better at fixing the car? Who’s better at doing the laundry? Who’s better at cooking?’ Not just better, ‘But who enjoys it more?’
For whom is that more their thing is—who’s DIY, who is—that’s the same with children with Toby. I work virtually full-time now, and she is virtually full-time with Toby. That’s how we’ve designed it, not because one’s a man and one’s a woman or what. It’s because that’s just what works for our unique dynamic, and that’s what I would love to see with all partnerships. If people are in partnerships, that it’s not based on gender, because it’s such a kind of distracting factor.
Because gender doesn’t actually make you better at these things or make you enjoy things more. I know plenty of men who like cooking more than women, and women who like cars or DIY more than men. It’s just if you’re sitting down with your partner, ‘What do you enjoy? What are you good at? What do I enjoy? What am I good at? What’s your earning capacity? What’s mine? What do you love about your work? What do I love about my work? How can we somehow design this, so that everyone is playing to their strengths and gender is just irrelevant, then?’
Rachel: It’s really hard, though. Because these things creep up on you really, really insidiously. Because we do split the housework very equally now. We’ve had lots of conversations about that, and that is now working. But certainly when the kids were a lot smaller, we hadn’t talked about it, we hadn’t been so intentional as you and Sam had. We just sort of fell into those roles.
I guess when one person is at home on maternity leave, that’s just what happens because the other person’s going out to work. But then it sometimes feels like it doesn’t then change once the person’s gone back up to work. It’s not just about division of labour, it’s about the emotional load that you carry.
I had a friend who was just getting really annoyed because every week, her other half would be very happy to go pick the kids up from the sports clubs and take them along. But every week it’d go, ‘Right, so what’s happening tonight? What time do I need to be there? It should be like—’ Why do I have to be the one to tell you what’s happening? To hold that load in my head about, ‘Has it been organised? Who’s picking up? Could you do it or not?’
For my mind, not carrying the emotional load means you don’t even have to ask — the other person carries all the arrangements, all the worrying about it, all the thinking in the future about things.
Corrina: Yes. I was working with a client who was a doctor, who was talking about that unfair division between her and her husband when it came to childcare. What really helped was her thinking about how she did rotas at work. Just like at work, she was clear that at work you knew whose role was what, and whose responsibility was what, and therefore whose mental load was where—who was taking that mental leadership, that kind of psychological leadership of a project or a piece of work or a function within a team.
Once you saw that, ‘Oh, hang on. Yeah, I’m doing that at work.’ Then, she realised that she could get intentional with her husband. Actually, when drawing up rotas for things like childcare or housework or plans for those things, it had on that plan who was in charge of that. Not just the time of doing it, like you said, like going to collect the child from the sports club, but actually thinking about whatever was related to that. Because exactly as you say, it’s that mental load that carries that kind of that burden that people don’t feel they can’t escape from. But if you realise that you do it in work, then you can apply that to home as well.
Rachel: I love that. That’s a really good tip. Yeah, just apply your leadership skills from work to home and think, ‘Well, I would never treat someone at work like I’m treating this person.’ I’d never say, ‘You need to pick them up, then. Have you remembered to pick them up? Do you know when it is? I’ll make sure I tell you every week and remind you.’ You just trust them to do it. If they didn’t do it, you put them in performance management.
Corrina: What could there be natural consequences, wouldn’t there of that? That would become very apparent very quickly. Then, you would have to have those conversations. I think, you used that word “intentional”, which is so important. It’s about being intentional. It’s about having those conversations, which can be hard when you’re very busy working parents, but the time it takes to sit down and have those intentional conversations.
When I say, ‘Sit down” Sam and I actually do our best talking as we’re going out for a walk, maybe we’re taking Toby out for a walk in the buggy—best time to have big conversations. Having those conversations not just once, but regularly. So you’re regularly checking in again, as you would do with work when things change at work.
For example, as the children get older, or you add another child to your family, and things change, you get to sit down or go for a walk and have those conversations. Like Sam and I are having right now about—okay, this current setup for us: with me working on my coaching and training practice, her being with Toby. Well, what happens when there’s another child? Do we keep it exactly the same? Or actually, just you not fancy so much having two children virtually full-time, and then we need to think about other?
Rachel: So just keeping that sort of very adult-to-adult interaction. As you’re saying that, I was just thinking that the drama triangle really comes in here, doesn’t it? Because I think we can very much and I—this is talking about me here, I won’t say “we”, I’m talking about me—I can feel like a complete victim in all of this. Like, ‘Why is it always me?’ It’s not fair.
“They should, they should, they should” about all sorts of different people without actually taking responsibility that, actually, I could ask for what I need. Then, sometimes, you’ll then scatter things by trying to rescue. So that whole, let’s take example of the friend with the football practice, don’t remind them. Just say, ‘Is there anything that you need? Anything we can support you with in that role? Then, actually help them accept the consequences.
The problem is when it’s your child, and you know that the consequences might be your child forgetting their swimming kit and having to sit on the edge of the pool and not being able to do what they want to do. That’s really, really hard to accept. So you end up interfering and not letting that other person get on with it or learn from the consequences. You might as well just have done it yourself.
I think I have particularly seen doctors doing this. That you moan that you’ve got the emotional load and that you have to do all the thinking about kids and everything, but then you don’t actually let it go and let other people do it.
Corrina: Well, that’s if we dig into the drama triangle, they’re that rescuer role. It’s all about short-term relief to the rescuer within the drama triangle. For those who aren’t familiar, we’ve got the villain, the victim—we might call the villain the persecutor—villain, victim, and rescuer. The rescuer was all about short-term relief, and short-term being the operative word.
So that stepping in to fix something, it might have that short term relief where, ‘Okay, my child has their swimming gear and can go in a swimming pool.” But it doesn’t actually solve the long-term issue at all.
As you say, then, how do you get out of that role? You go from rescuer to being more coach-like to actually asking those questions like, ‘How can I support you? What can you do?’ So that you have longer-term solutions, not short-term.
Rachel: That’s quite, that is hard to do. But I think it’s always just bearing in mind, we’re looking at the long-term consequences here. I always remember—this is slightly off piece—it may or may not be relevant, but hearing—it’s a parenting seminar, I think. This guy was saying that he had gone to dinner with some friends of theirs and the friends had a 14-year-old boy.
Anyway, halfway through dinner, bloke needs to go to the loo—gets up, goes to the loo. The bathrooms upstairs. So he goes upstairs and has to use a bathroom, finds the mother in the 14- year-old’s bedroom, tidying up, putting all his stuff in the wash bin, just tidying up. He said he just went into the room, took one look at her and said, ‘I really pity his future wife.’
Oh my goodness. Absolutely. Because if we are always rescuing, taking responsibility for everybody else, taking on the emotional load that we don’t want to take, we are not paying attention to the long-term consequences, into the long-term training. Because that’s what you’re trying to do, isn’t it? When you’re bringing up kids, you’re trying to teach them to be adults and make their own way in the world.
I mean, one of my bugbears is when adults spend a lot of time and energy on their kids’ homework, or nagging them to do it, or doing it for them. So I’m like, how is that helpful? A.) If they don’t do their homework, I want their teacher to have a go at them, not me. Because I want to be good going, ‘Oh you poor thing. Isn’t that teacher awful?’ They need to experience the natural consequences. Then, B.) if you’re always doing it for them, how on earth are they going to cope when they get to university or they’re in a job and there’s no one else to do it for them?
Corrina: Yeah, and that is the danger of being a rescuer is that it doesn’t actually help people. It doesn’t, it—you think it gives us short-term relief, but it doesn’t help you as the rescuer. Because you then often feel resentful that you’ve, ‘Oh, I’ve been so— Look at me, I’ve been clearing up the room,’ or whatever it is you’ve been doing. It doesn’t help the person that you’re rescuing.
What you’re actually doing is training a kind of a learned helplessness to somebody who doesn’t become competent. There’ve been, I believe, lots of studies into resilience and how children benefit from feeling their own sense of competence and independence and self-sufficiency. That builds their mental health more than this learned helplessness would do.
Rachel: Yeah, and I think that is one of the problems of being a professional parent. In that you’re used to—and also working in health care, and possibly being a coach as well, Corrina—I’m interested in your thoughts, because you’re so used to solving people’s problems for them.
Patient comes in, you tell them what to do, although I would really hope that we’re now starting to be a bit more coaching in our approach to that as well. Then, see your kid has a problem, you just solve it for them. Because you’re quite high-achieving, you want your kids to be high- achieving, you’ll do anything to make things—to give them the opportunities and to get instilled with this.
I see parents spending their entire lives ferrying their children from this activities to that activity to that activity, enabling their entire life so that the child can be high-performing and high-achieving, but the child isn’t actually learning to make their own way in the world, to find their own way to places, to be a little bit bored, to have to do things for themselves.
We have that danger. I think they call it helicopter parenting. That we actually try so hard to fix everything for our children that A.) we don’t let them solve their own problems. But B.) I’ve noticed this a bit in some of my friends, and maybe myself as well—you end up losing your own identity as a human being because it just gets completely subsumed in being a mother, or father, or parent.
Then, you go to work, which maybe it gets a little bit tricky and difficult. Work then isn’t giving as much satisfaction. Then, you suddenly find, ‘What’s going on?’ Then, you have a massive midlife crisis and either buy a Porsche or run off with a gym instructor. I don’t know or both. Sorry, that got a bit bleak.
Corrina: Well, actually, what’s interesting is that actually, as a coach, I don’t believe I solve anyone’s problems. I’m very much trusting that they’re solving their problems through having the space of coaching to hear themselves think, and to reflect, and to have things pointed out to them.
I think that actually has helped me as a parent. I think I hope I am quite hands-off in the sense that I trust Toby. I mean, he’s 21 months, right? So we’re very early, early days, but I do step back and notice when he—let’s say, he’s trying to figure something out, and I can step back, and I can say something like, ‘It looks like you’re really frustrated right now. Now, I wonder how you might, I wonder how you might figure out how to put that one tractor trailer on there or—’
I think coaching actually helps me be a less—less of a helicopter parent. Also, I’ve been looking into dipping my toes into the Montessori approaches to education, which is very interesting. A lot of that is about observing the child and trusting the child to figure out their own problems.
Rachel: It’d be quite interesting to see if you still manage to coach Toby when he’s a teenager, because I generally get the response of, ‘Stop trying to therapise me, mum.’
Corrina: Come back to me in what, 13 years or something, and we can explore that one?
Rachel: Yeah, I think you make a really, really good point. We haven’t got huge amounts of time left. So we’ve sort of talked about the emotional load, we talked about being a default parent, we’ve talked about not rescuing either your partner or your or your children. What strategies and techniques do you tend to share with people that just makes life a bit easier as a professional working parent?
Corrina: There’s definitely something about in being intentional—knowing what the priorities are, knowing what you’re wanting. Stepping into what we share as one of our Shapes—the zone of power that I’m always having someone come back to. What is in your power? There’ll be so many things that aren’t in your power. The fact that your child is sick on a day when you really need to go to work, your nursery won’t have them because they’re sick, and then that’s all out of your control.
But when things are out of your control, you have to come back to that question of, ‘Okay, well, what is in my power? What options do I have?’ Thinking creatively about saying no is always a strategy, which seems to come up as being a challenging one.
Saying no, holding boundaries to for example, someone who is a working parent, who finishes at five or eight or whatever time that workday finishes for them, holding that boundary and holding it without apology, without kind of justifying or anything. Just it’s just a factual thing, ‘This is when I have to finish because I have to go and pick up my child or be with my child at this point.’
It always comes back to being powerful and not being, as you were saying earlier, not being a victim, not blaming others. What is in my power? What can I do? How can I communicate clearly, so that I am staying in my power? I’m pointing out anything which I want others to know in terms of feedback for them, whether it’s a partner, a child, or a colleague. I’m sharing feedback in that way, but I’m always asking, ‘What can I do to make my situation the best it can be?’
Rachel: I love that. It is so powerful just to think what is it that I can do without being a rescuer and overreaching on that “I can do this and I can do this”, but actually, what’s in my zone of power here?
For me, I think it really does boil down to the stories that we have in our head, and our expectations of ourselves. A lot of those are hugely ingrained from the way that we were brought up, maybe from the culture in which we’re brought up.
But I think I would have been spared a lot of grief, if I hadn’t been telling myself, ‘I should be like this as a mother. I should enjoy spending hours baking with my children. I should enjoy going to the park. I really didn’t—I enjoy doing lots of other stuff with them, but not those particular things.’ Then, felt like the most dreadful person for it.
If you’ve got those stories telling you, you should do it, you ought to do it, or you feel dreadful—be then force yourself to do stuff that you’re probably not very good at. I know that early, you talked about the—when we were just chatting before the podcast—about staying in your zone of genius. What do you mean by that?
Corrina: Yeah, so zone of genius. Gay Hendricks is an author who talks about this in his book, The Big Leap, which I do recommend, talks about these different zones. We have a zone of incompetence, which is really what we’re very much not good at. A zone of competence, which is what we can do—we can do it, but we’re just, we’re just competent. Our zone of excellence, which is where a lot of us get stuck, because we are excellent—we’re great at something.
But it actually prevents us from going to our zone of genius, which is where we totally shine and where we absolutely thrive. Knowing that if I know that I am someone who does not want to bake with my child, that is not my zone of genius. Maybe it could be my zone of competence. But far better to have that be what an auntie or an uncle or a grandparent does with my child when they have him.
It’s trusting that actually, we can stay in our zone of genius and trust that others will do brilliant work in their zones of genius. That just makes everything—everyone just feels better. Your zone of genius doesn’t feel like work. It feels like just where you’re absolutely your “most” yourself—your best, best self, the easiest way of being you.
Rachel: Oh, I love that. I love that. I think a lot of people don’t actually know what their zones of genius are. So maybe, ask people.
Corrina: Yes. We did this when Toby was born, or I think we maybe when we were pregnant with him, we were asking all our friends, ‘What would you—what would be your great area of strength to do with Toby?’ For some people, like friends who love going camping. Sam and I do not like going camping, but I would love for Toby to be exposed to that and have that experience.
So great, we know that he can go with those people. They can go on a camping trip, and they can go and cook outdoors and all of that wonderful stuff. We don’t have to do that because that’s not our area of strength.
Rachel: So surrounding yourself with help and people that can can help as well. As you’ve been saying that, I think a really good thing would be to ignore your gender roles. Just try and try and approach it as if you were in a nongendered partnership.
Corrina: Yes, yes.
Rachel: Is that the right word?
Corrina: Absolutely. Because that’s what works for Sam and for me. It’s the fact that we are working to our strengths and our interests—our zones of genius. So yeah, throw gender away and just, ‘What are you—what are you best suited for?’
Rachel: Yeah, my other half is so much better at doing the laundry than me. It’s unreal. I think I’m better at DIY. But, there we go.
Corrina: What has—at the end of the day, what did genitals have to do with laundry and DIY? They don’t. It’s just society’s assumptions that this is what men and women do, which just, we would be so much better off if we were liberated from.
Rachel: Yeah, totally. I’m just laughing, thinking if he listened to this. Actually, I’ve never drilled a hole in my life, so I’m definitely not better at DIY. He’s much more organised than me. So for me, organising children’s parties and things like that—definitely not my zone of genius. But I have slipped into that role because that’s what the mother does.
If we could just come at it with beginner’s mind and go, ‘Actually, what does this partnership look like? Let’s work towards our zone of genius.’ For me, it’s getting those stories out of the head and getting the guilt away that, ‘I should be good at this or ought to be doing that.’ Approach it as—India Knight wrote a really good article called What Would a Man Do?
So she said, every time she comes across something pretty tricky, or there’s a tricky situation with the kids, or she just can’t be bothered, ‘What would a man do?’ Then, she thinks it’s something easy.
I think you could also say, ‘What would a woman do?’ Yeah, and so that way around as well. So you could say, ‘What would a man do? What would a woman do? What could—what would make this better without that expectation?’ Try and do that. So Corrina, I know we’re really out of time, and you need to go. Do you have three quick top tips for us?
Corrina: Well, my top tips, generally around thriving at work, which is what I have been thinking about, is to really see that everybody around you is an ally. I think if we bring that to what we’ve been talking about today, to see that, let’s say neither of you within your partnership have a zone of genius around something. DIY, let’s say. Well, where is your ally, then? What of your friends—who of your friends is great at DIY, and would love to do that? Or who could you hire, who would be great at that?
So just seeing that life is supportive, and life is friendly, and that you have allies—that you’re not victims, you’re not isolated. The second thing is to catch a victimhood, we’ve been talking about quite a lot, and take radical responsibility. ‘What can I do? Given the circumstances around me that maybe I can’t do anything about, what can I do?’ Then, the third one is around following our zone of genius.
Rachel: Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant tips there. I think may—might the only thing I’d add to that would be approach the delegation of tasks in the home, which includes all the arrangements, things like he would delegate the rota at work.
Rachel: Brilliant, brilliant. Corrina, thank you. If people wanted to get a hold of you, find out more about you, where could they go?
Corrina: So my website is corrinagordonbarnes.com. I’ll spell that: corrinagordonbarnes.com.
Corrina: You can send me a contact message there. I’ve had people contact me after these podcasts before, which is lovely. Feel free to go to the contact page there and drop me a message.
Rachel: That’s wonderful. Corrina, thank you so much for being here, and best of luck with the imminent arrival of little one.
Corrina: Thank you so much.
Rachel: Speak soon.
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