Your Needs or Mine?

How does one balance children’s needs with one’s own needs? This is really a central issue with which many parents struggle. The reason it is a struggle is that there is no single, or “right” answer.

A mother of a young child who was a working professional told me she found the hardest part was the ongoing nature of the conflict she felt. She had thought the conflict was simply between deciding to work or being a full-time mother. Instead, she found that every day decisions had to be made about what she perceived as the needs of her child versus the demands of her work.

These decisions are influenced in part by the choice of parenting philosophy or approach one chooses to adhere to. Whatever it is that determines these choices, the choices themselves play a big role in determining one’s attitudes not only about the mothering-work conflict, but also about the daily interactions with children. All of the approaches to child-rearing have a point of view regarding the needs of children, the importance of these needs, and the nature and degree of response that is required from parents. Many of these approaches are prescriptive, so another influence on one’s behavior as a parent is the importance we ascribe to “experts” and authority.

As the mother I referred to above pointed out, she constantly had to decide what was more important in a particular situation, what her son needed or wanted, or what her own needs were. What complicates the question even more is that children can feel as if they really need something they want. And sometimes they really do. Do you take time off from work (if you can) to be the mom on the class trip? If your child doesn’t feel well, is she really sick? Can the sitter or nanny handle it? Should your child stay home from school if it means you have to miss work? If he begs you not to leave when you go out, should you stay home with him?

As one mother said, “there are a lot of things you really feel they should be getting but either they’re not getting or you have to scrape time to give it to them. And sometimes too – like they want too much. They can get over- demanding. But then you get guilty and think I shouldn’t say that, but I feel that she is because I’m at work and I can’t make it and she’s always asking.” This mom is not sure if it is her child who should not be asking or if it is she who should be able to give.

Some of these questions may feel easier to answer than others, but the answers do depend in part not only on what you know about your own child, but also on how strongly you feel about the importance of certain kinds of responses to your child. In other words, can you accept and tolerate a measure of frustration or unhappiness in your child? And even if you can, how do you determine what is an acceptable amount and what is not? A father asked me recently how many minutes was it all right to let a child cry – in this case at bedtime – but parents ask the same question about separations from their children.

There are no “right” answers to such questions, which is why balancing needs consists of an ongoing set of questions which parents have to answer in terms of themselves and their own children. Perhaps the real meaning of “mommy war” is the struggle within ourselves that we parents experience in trying to answer them.