Balancing Needs

The conflicts that arise between raising children and working outside the home are often depicted critically in the “Mommy War” that has received so much attention recently.  Much that is written is presented as an argument intending to prove that one side is better than the other.  On the other hand, the reality – that many mothers today are working outside the home – has also led to much discussion about balance.  How are we to arrive at a balance between work and family life?  This discussion involves fathers as well as mothers.

A reader commented on last week’s “More Mommy Wars”, giving her opinion that “this whole dialogue is off the mark.”  She writes that as a highly educated, stay-at-home mom who is returning to the workforce, she feels that there are valid points and observations on both sides of the issues.  She points out that she would have welcomed some “frank, ongoing conversation” about the importance of expressing one’s personal self.  I think she means finding a way to express aspects of one’s identity other than mothering.  The two sides of the issue seem to be the value of full-time motherhood and the value of other kinds of work or self-expression.

This speaks to the issue of the need for or the importance of work beyond  supplementing the family income.  This point of view has been criticized in the past as relating only to those who are fortunate enough to have meaningful work which helps to define them as people in their own right – not just as parents.  Yet many mothers who are employed in ways that may seem less significant, say they value the opportunity to have time away from their children and to be part of an adult, rather than a child world. 

In either case, the issue becomes how to balance children’s needs with one’s own needs.  This is really the 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 trained and 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 and 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.

I came across a Time magazine article titled Parents Do What’s Right for Them, Not for the Kids. The author writes: “We like to think that the choices we make early on as parents . . . reflect deep truths about what’s best for our children.  But they don’t.  What these decisions do reflect, however, whether we want to admit it or not, are pretty deep-seated facts about ourselves.”   The article is actually about the choice of parenting philosophy or approach one chooses to adhere to, and points out that one’s personal history plays a large role in such choices.

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?

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.

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