Women today seem to have many more choices than did earlier generations. They can choose whether to work or pursue a career, if and when to have a baby, whether to be a stay-at-home mom or to work outside the home, and the kind of child-care to pick if they work. So many choices – or so it seems.
Choice was meant to be liberating. It became the mantra of an earlier generation in the woman’s movement. But choice means making a choice, having to choose, within the limits imposed by reality. Choice turns out to be not always as liberating and empowering as everyone had hoped. Choice seems to bring with it many conflicts, both internal and external.
The word one hears more often today is balance. Many women are struggling to meet the many demands made on them – to balance these competing demands. Perhaps the most difficult balancing act has become the one between family life and work. Men as well as women are trying to find that balance. Although perhaps women more than men, both have found that the work world is such that getting ahead – even staying in place – does not permit giving the consideration they would like to give to family life.
Just in the last few days, a judge dismissing claims that a major company had discriminated against new mothers and mothers-to-be wrote, “The law does not mandate ‘work-life balance’ . . . . . making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences.” Here is reality closing in on choice. Combining work and motherhood may mean a limitation on the kind of work that is attainable.
Even the choice to work is in itself not always a choice. Economic reality is such that the need for dual incomes has become a fact of life. Yet many choices are involved in making that decision, such as where people want to live, what kind of education they choose for their children, what material benefits are important to them. What one values becomes a major issue in the choices made.
Another major reality factor that impacts on the choice to work outside the home is the issue of child-care. In recent years, when finances permit, many women have chosen to give up their work in order to stay home with their children. There are a number of factors involved here including the kind of child-care that is available, but equally important are the feelings of women.
Although some young families are lucky enough to have grandparents or other family members helping out with child-care, the most common choice is between hiring an individual care-giver and seeking some form of group care. Individual care is expensive, difficult to find, and may not meet a parent’s standards. Many complicated issues arise between parents and caregivers.
But the quality, affordability and availability of day-care have become controversial issues as well. As soon as you put young children in groups, questions arise as to how many children in a group? How many adults per child? How well trained are the caregivers? How many hours in a center are appropriate for the age of a given child? What is the physical space like? Answering these questions in an acceptable way by definition means higher costs. As a result, all of these factors have limited day-care as an option for many parents.
But the conflict that has arisen for many women in trying to choose the right kind of child-care, or even whether to work outside the home at all, has to do with feelings within themselves. I have written before about the idealization of individual care, and especially mother care, in our culture. We’ve all been exposed to these beliefs and they permeate our feelings. We fall in love with our babies and are loathe to turn them over to someone else’s care. That doesn’t mean they can’t do well without our being there 24/7. It means that we feel that they won’t, and start to feel guilty if we are not there.
These feelings often lead mothers to feel they must give every available hour they are not at work to their children. Not only the realistic demands of work and family, but the kinds of demands they make of themselves can become overwhelming. In many cases, when financially possible this has led to a decision to give up one’s work life.
Everyone tries to make the decision that is best for her own situation, but too often what propels such decisions are not just the reality factors, but the conflicted feelings that are stirred up by the choices involved. Conflict within ourselves creates the feeling that something is wrong, or we wouldn’t feel this way. We want to rid ourselves of this feeling that causes anxiety, and think that the right decision would take care of it.
As mothers and citizens, there are things that we can work to change, such as better and more available child-care, more parent-friendly conditions in the work place. But conflicted feelings are always going to be with us. They are part of life, because as I hope we have all learned, nothing is perfect. We may choose one thing over another, but that doesn’t mean the conflict will be resolved. Instead, we have to learn how to live with contradictory needs and wishes – just as our children do.
Choice can be a good thing – as long as we remember that choosing something almost always means also giving something up.