An article in the New Yorker magazine about Bruce Springsteen has given me much food for thought. It has very interesting things to say about him, especially his drive to continue being creative in his work rather than simply continuing to recycle old material. But what really caught my attention was a quote from his wife.
Many of you may be Springsteen fans and know that his wife, Patti Scialfa, originally joined his band as a singer. The article states that on recent tours she has been an intermittent presence. The Springsteens have three children and Ms. Scialfa skips concerts to be with the children. Being around for the kids has been a priority. She is quoted as saying: “When I was young, I felt really vulnerable. So I wanted things to be relaxed and stable and have somebody in the house and make sure they felt supported when they went off to school.” She then added, “The hardest part is splitting yourself, the feeling that you’re never doing any one job really well.”
That last statement is one with which it is easy to identify, and is one I have also heard from more mothers than I can count. There are so many demands on our time that there is always the feeling – and reality – that something has been left undone. While this may be particularly true for mothers who are working outside the home, mothers involved with full time child-care, as well as the other responsibilities related to being a homemaker, also often feel this way.
Numerous factors contribute to such feelings. The most obvious in the case of mothers with outside jobs is the inherent conflict between the demands of the workplace and the pull of children’s needs and wishes. Mothers feel torn when they are unavailable to their children at certain times because of work, but also when they are unable to meet their own, or their employers needs’ or wishes because of family requirements.
Conflicted feelings may be based on reality factors, but they are also based on things that seem real but may not be. Certainly the issue of just how much our children really need us to be with them is open to question. Children often behave as though they need our attention one hundred per cent of the time, but that is certainly not the case. They may think they want that, but it certainly is not what they need, nor would they really like it if it happened.
Our own feelings for our children play a part in this. When they want us – perhaps calling us at work with some dilemma – we are not sure if our actual presence is required or just some helpful words. At the same time, mothers feel that they are missing a lot in a child’s development – such as first words or other firsts. So we may also feel a desire to be with our children that is stronger than the realty might be if the wish were realized. The fact is, being with children for long stretches can be very stressful.
Periodically the mother/work conflict flares up as a topic in the media. Most often when it does, the conflict is discussed as between motherhood and career. The story line is either a successful career woman who gives up her job because of the stress on family life, or the reverse, such as the new CEO of Yahoo who is pregnant, or Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook who is adamant about motherhood being no detriment to a high powered career.
The real issue in all of this is priorities. We are all confronted with setting priorities, in many cases on a daily basis. What confuses the issue is value judgments made by others as to which priorities are most important. The idea that children need to be raised by their mothers, and that mothers should be primary caregivers to their children, is still pervasive. The truth is that children need care, if not by their mothers then in some other consistent way. Media examples tend to be of women with significant financial means who are able to pay others to provide that care. Unfortunately, that is not a solution available to most women for whom the conflict between motherhood and work outside the home is much more reality based.
The fact, that is often not acknowledged directly, is that women do have different priorities. Women are more than mothers, and for some women their professional or career selves are their priority. Many other women, however, do not want to make such a clear cut choice and keep trying to balance their priorities. They want to be there for their children, but without sacrificing other personal aspirations and interests.
Setting these priorities means deciding over and over again what being a “good” mother means, and what being “good” at something else means. Those definitions are different for different people, as are the expectations they hold of themselves. It is not hard to see why women may be left questioning whether we’re “doing any one job really well.”