Balanced or Unbalanced?

A mother, who is also a professional person running her own business, spoke to me about an unexpected issue that had arisen concerning one of her children.  A conference with his teacher had revealed that his ongoing learning difficulty was of greater magnitude than she had been aware, and was going to need more intense intervention.  Beyond her parental concern, the mom was aware that his need for attention was going to take more time than expected, and that she was going to have to cut back on her business commitments.

Fortunately for this mother, she was in a position to make the decision to shift time from work to her child’s needs, despite the financial impact on her family, and perhaps on her future work as well.  But this conversation brought into focus some of the flaws in the controversy currently raging about work/family balance.  The meaning of balance is somehow never defined, and clearly varies depending on differing values, points of view – and circumstances.  It seems that in most instances, balance turns out to mean giving greater weight to one side or the other – which, in fact, means unbalanced.

Surely Sheryl Sandberg’s emphasis, as well as that of the changed Yahoo policy, is on making work the top priority.  The Yahoo point of view is clearly that life should revolve around the workplace.  While Sandberg writes about balancing work and family, her recommendations for accomplishing that seem quite unrealistic for many work and family situations.  Her basic philosophy seems to be the “kids are alright”, so ignore your guilt and the things in your children’s lives you will be missing.  The kind of success she is advocating would seem to depend on that kind of “unbalance.”

Some years ago I ran a program for children with developmental disabilities which required parent participation (initially mothers, but as times changed fathers began to participate as well.)  I remember the distress of many working mothers as they found career and work plans falling apart, not just because of the need to bring children to special intervention programs, but also the difficulty in finding appropriate childcare for special needs children, and the time needed to be advocates for their children.

The problem though, is not just the unexpected needs that may arise with children – even those without special disabilities – but that the most basic issue of availability of good child care has not been solved.  Sandberg writes of internal and external obstacles to women’s success and positions of power.  She recognizes the external obstacles but indicates that her interest is in the internal obstacles – the behavior of women themselves.  It is hard to see how women can focus on internal obstacles if they don’t have good child care and family leave policies that allow for unexpected emergencies.

The agenda behind the focus on internal obstacles is that of having more women in positions of power.  On the face of it this requires unbalancing in the direction of work.  Many women are not interested in that choice.  But many women are interested in combining work with child-rearing and family life, and here is where the external – not internal – obstacles are making this option too stressful to continue comfortably.  Achieving true balance, where neither family – including women themselves – or work are sacrificed for the other, does require removing the external obstacles.

But a lack of balance may also exist within the family, as well as within the workplace itself.  Sandberg describes this unbalance in the workplace as a product of women’s failure to “lean in.”  Could this possibly apply as well to mothers in their relationships to their children?  I think about this in connection to what I know to be the difficulties mothers experience in achieving their goals with their children.  Certainly, American parents have been compared unfavorably in recent times to Chinese and French mothers, particularly with regard to power over their children.  

Perhaps the real issue is not power, but self-assertion – staying in charge.  This is where mothers often run into difficulty.  Conflicts over routines, not responding to parents’ requests, defiant behavior, are all familiar complaints.  Discomfort with the raw power and corporal punishment of old, too often can lead to feelings of helplessness and “giving in”.  A big part of the problem is that establishing an atmosphere and expectation of cooperation takes time and a willingness to “hear” children.  Time and patience both, often are victims of the work/family unbalance.

Beyond food and shelter, what children need is not that clear cut, and has been defined differently at different times.  Certainly, children do not “need” in an absolute sense, many of the things they may want or that we may want to give them. This is also what complicates any attempt to say definitively what children require by way of parental time and attention.  This is a competitive society with an emphasis on individualism, which puts a great deal of pressure on parents to do everything possible for their children.     

In the end, just as the external obstacles make it difficult to “lean in” at work, the same is true within the family.  Women have already shouldered a great deal of responsibility without having to feel any added pressure to do more.

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