A quick look around the parenting blogosphere is enough to see that attitudes have changed. Gone is the ‘doting homemaker’, and in their place is a much more irreverent parent figure who confesses their faults and failures and reveals a grittier side to family life. More than just an Instagram or WeChat trend, this new tone reflects a wider shift around how we define success as a society in general.
Employee absence due to workplace stress and mental health issues is now a global phenomenon, according to a recent study of 58 countries by the International Bar Association’s Global Employment Institute. Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study shows that more than half of the global workforce want more flexible work options.
This is particularly the case among millennials, many of whom are young parents: and their approach to their families is similarly malleable. A household that is emotionally resilient and resourceful and can adapt and mould to changing circumstances feels like a goal to aspire to. Rigid home-life is out; today, ‘messy’ feels aspirational.
“Long hours lead to mental and physical health issues with no time to look after ourselves or our loved ones. Yet there is lots of evidence to show that when we do have a more flexible, adaptable way of working and living, people report increases in health and loyalty to the firm,” says Annie Auerbach, co-founder of UK-based cultural insight agency Starling Strategy, who is writing a book called ‘FLEX! A flexible approach to life, work and everything’.
More and more people are choosing to spread their bets when it comes to balancing home and work. That might mean devoting time to cultivating a wide skill-set and ensuring a range of income streams instead of just one. It might also mean taking time out to look after ageing parents or young children. “Work and leisure don't have to be compartmentalised. Parents are operating more of a stop/start work day, taking time out in the middle to look after little ones and then going back to work once they’re asleep,” says Auerbach.
Challenging the myth of perfect parenting
It is only natural that along with this adaptation of family rhythms should come a challenge to existing cultural norms around how to parent. One of the first things to be stripped down has been the myth of ‘perfect parenting’ and the pressure mums put on themselves. “Today’s parents have realized you can’t be perfect. They’ve looked at past generations burning out and they’ve realized ‘having it all’ is a myth,” says Rebecca Rhodes, co-founder of the strategic marketing agency SuperHuman, which help brands to connect better with women. “Once you’ve decided you can’t have it all, then you relax into an attitude that says ‘it’s ok not to be absolutely perfect’”.
Mealtimes are a big part of this. UK brand Birds Eye made headlines with their #Solidaritea campaign, which has been running since 2017. The impetus for the work was a critical article in the UK’s Daily Mail denigrating the new swathe of mum bloggers such as ‘Hurrah for Gin’, the ‘Unmumsy Mum’ and ‘The Skummy Mummies’ for not having higher standards at home, with their reliance on feeding their children frozen fish fingers portrayed as evidence of this.
“We felt it was our job to stand up for these busy mums with lots going on in their lives — no one needs more criticism. We wanted to support parents’ choices about what to feed their kids,” says Rebecca Nascimento, general marketing manager of Birds Eye. The campaign, which featured bloggers from the article, was a huge success, hailed for the way it reflected the reality of child rearing today.
New rituals and self-care in a less structured family home
This new era calls not only for a more adaptable, agile family but also one that is more in tune with itself and able to adjust to today’s environment of flux. “Developing ways of checking in with yourself and working out what’s best for the changing circumstances is a discipline that doesn’t really exist in our lives,” says Auerbach. “With longer careers, we will need to devote time to this – not one pattern will last all the way anymore.”
Part of this development sees families trying out new things and developing new rituals. Traditional celebrations such as Christmas or Chinese New Year are having to be reinvented, for example, because families are increasingly dispersed or parents have remarried. Airbnb China walked boldly into this space with its ‘This year, let us celebrate Chinese New Year my way” campaign, suggesting people shake up the Spring Festival by taking their parents away with them; or even hosting their dad and his new girlfriend.
This transition towards a more flexible view of the family (and perhaps because of it) is being accompanied by a growing interest in self-care and a desire to be more self-aware. “There are so many self awareness tools and articles out there now, parents are realizing that being kind to yourself and self-care for you and the kids is about more than brushing their teeth twice a day or getting them enough fresh air. It’s actually about nurturing a curious compassion toward your feelings and helping your child do that too,” says Shahroo Izadi, author of The Kindness Method, which offers easy steps to get in touch with motivations and change negative behaviour.
There is plenty of evidence to show that today’s kids are better than those of previous generations at talking about what’s going on in their emotional lives. This is becoming increasingly apparent in China, for example, where government and school initiatives are gradually starting to focus more on children’s overall wellbeing than their academic achievements. Brands like McDonald’s have been quick to react to this, with their recent ‘Love at the Same Height’ campaign championing family closeness built on sharing emotions and vulnerability.
Key to success? Open up the dialogue
A dialogue between parents, brands and children is essential as the world transitions towards a less structured and more fluid future. Ikea’s answer has been to set up a Kids Advisory Board, consisting of children aged 7 – 13, in Germany, China and the UK. They set the panel simple tasks once or twice a month to better understand the children’s lifestyles. “Rather than imposing things on children we are saying ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What do you need?’ This goes straight to designers and helps them see it from the child’s perspective,” says Dr Barbie Clarke, co-founder of market research consultancy Family, Kids and Youth which runs the panel.
Dr Clarke, who also conducts research into adult and child psychosocial development at Cambridge University, thinks that more brands should be providing an infrastructure for dialogue. “Take Fortnite, [the global gaming sensation owned by Epic Games]. Most parents we talk to don’t really get it, they just don’t understand what it is,” she says. Clarke suggests that gaming brands or social media brands could do more to provide information for parents so they know what it is and if or when they should step in or be worried.
In the absence of adequate brand information, families are being forced to open up the dialogue themselves. Luckily kids are pretty good at sharing, be that with their friends or parents. Now all we have to do is listen.