“Dad is sad. / Very, very sad. / He had a bad day. / What a day Dad had! /”
In the illustration for this rhythm from the Dr. Seuss classic Hop on Pop, a defeated-looking father sits in an armchair with a rumpled tie. His three lookalike kids remarking amongst themselves how he must have had a terrible day.
For many people it hits uncomfortably close to home. But one important person is missing from this picture: Dad’s co-parent. How are they feeling about Dad’s bad day?
Not so hot, according to new research.
A study discussed in 2023 in Harvard Business Review found a person’s feelings about their boss seemed to have a major knock-on effect on their co-parent, affecting their performance at work and with the kids.
The researchers suggested it was because a boss’s support made the difference between coming home drained or energized, directly affecting their ability to show up for their partner and kids. And this either helped or hindered their partner in their work and home life.
The situation could look something like this: You and your partner both work full-time jobs and you have two young kids. But your partner has been having trouble with a new boss lately. They’ve been coming home stressed or frustrated on a regular basis. They need significant time to decompress, and sometimes their negative feelings from work leak into their interactions with you or the kids.
That in turn brings down your mood and makes you less energetic at work and grumpier at home.
What they found
The study surveyed 100 couples with kids in which both parents had careers outside the home.
The couples were surveyed at several times over the course of a year and a half during the pandemic — a highly stressful time for families, especially those with young kids.
Each parent reported how much they felt supported by three work factors: their direct supervisor, their colleagues, and the broad organizational culture. The study also asked each parent how much support their partner provided as a co-parent.
The effect of a bad (or great) boss was much more powerful than that of colleagues or work environment.
The researchers named a few examples of an unsupportive workplace:
- a micromanaging supervisor
- work policies that don’t support parents
- a culture of presenteeism — going to work even when you’re sick
The researchers found these effects were true for parents regardless of gender and how many children they had.
It’s possible to thrive as working co-parents
The link this research uncovered may be blatantly obvious to many working parents, but within it are some hopeful hidden gems.
The researchers found that some co-parents thrived despite managing kids while trying to work during the pandemic.
Having a supportive supervisor was key. When the co-parent’s direct boss at work was supportive, participants tended to share the positivity — lending more support to their co-parent.
They were also better able to help out around the home and with the kids.
The researchers gave these tips to co-parents to help make this situation happen:
- Let your negative mood melt away after work: After a frustrating day at work, purposely release your built-up stress. The researchers suggested creating a commute ritual, for instance. The idea is to create an emotional buffer time to minimize the degree of work negativity you bring home to your family.
- Find fair ways to divide labor between co-parents: Not everything needs to be divided down the middle. The researchers recommend experimenting to divide up home tasks in ways that make both partners feel good.
- Look for a supportive boss: When you’re in a position to choose a direct supervisor who will support you and help you feel good at work on a regular basis, go for it. Your family will thrive, too.
- Manage your boss: Are there a few things you can do to reduce your stress and improve your communication and relationship with them at work?
- Grow your support network: Gather people around you that provide additional support, so you’re not relying only on your co-parent and boss. You may find the people around you can give you a helpful emotional boost even when you’re having hard times at work.
The final word
If your boss is unsupportive — like if they micromanage or doesn’t understand your needs as a working parent — then there’s a good chance they’re having a downstream negative effect on your partner, too.
On the other hand, a supportive boss is worth their weight in gold — helping you thrive in your life at work and at home.
Thankfully, if you’re dealing with a tough supervisor, there are a few important actions you can take to improve your situation and enrich your home life along with it.
Science writer and founder of Relationship Smart. A bad boss once scoffed at her decision to study psychology, calling it "pseudoscience." She's had a chip on her shoulder ever since. This website is her response — because the world of our minds is real, important, and studyable. Relationship Smart is here to answer all your burning questions about relationships with scientific rigor and sensitivity.