Valuing Motherhood

Much attention has been given recently to the idea advanced by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, that women need to “lean in” in order to achieve greater leadership roles in the workplace.  But questions are being raised about whether or not this is what most women really want.  In fact, according to a survey from the Families and Work Institute, only 37% of working women say they want a job with more responsibilities.

Balancing work and family responsibilities seems to be the greater challenge for many women than career advancement.  An article last week by Catherine Rampell in the N.Y. Times gives a detailed picture of one woman’s strategies for managing as an important breadwinner for her family and as the mother of three children.  One thing that has helped immeasurably is her ability to work from home on Fridays.  With support from her husband and circle of friends, she approached her employer about doing this as a trial and was then able to make it a permanent arrangement.

It is interesting that the “lean in” strategy includes asking your employer directly for what you want, but in this instance the purpose was better to accommodate family responsibilities rather than career advancement.  While it may be useful for women to feel more empowered in approaching employers, the fact is that many women don’t have any bargaining power, and many employers would not be receptive to such an approach.  The concern then is that it might jeopardize a woman’s actual employment.

The mother in this story expresses the hope that “someday motherhood will be viewed by employers as an asset, as a source of leadership skills and other human capital.”  Motherhood has developed skills like multitasking, juggling, mentoring, educating, problem-solving, and managing.  “Motherhood should be a feather in my cap, not a drawback.”

While all those are valuable skills, there are even greater values that are derived from the experience of interacting with and nurturing children.  These days there is  much focus on the material things that children want and parents want to give them, as well as on all the educational advantages parents want for their children.  But in fact, although we sometimes forget this, the primary purpose of child-rearing is not just the care of dependent children but their socialization.  This means helping our children develop social behavior.

To become a social being, a major task is to grow from a position where one demands total attention for one’s own needs and feelings – which is where children start out – to the point of being able to give consideration to the needs and feelings of others.  The objective is some balance between oneself and others.  Many of the problems in human relationships stem from the difficulty in achieving that balance.

Conflicts are always bound to arise due to differing needs and feelings in relationships between people, whether between parent and child or between adults.  Too often such conflicting needs are resolved through power struggles in which someone wins and someone loses.  This becomes an either-or proposition in which either I give up what I want, or you give up what you want. 

We may try to resolve conflict either through force or persuasion.  Parents learn soon enough that force doesn’t work out too well with children, who grow up and then can become stronger than we are.  Persuasion can become an attempt to resolve conflict by showing that one person is right, the other person is wrong, one idea is good, the other idea is bad.  If we are convinced that we are the ones with the right idea we feel justified in imposing our will on the other person.  As parents, we are the ones responsible and usually have the better idea, but imposing our will often leads to rebellious and uncooperative behavior on the part of our children.

The problem of conflicting needs and desires in human relationships is encountered first in the parent-child relationship.  For the child this is the first experience not only of conflict between people, but also of the methods we use in our attempt to resolve such conflict.  Parents and children are in very different places in terms of their needs and wishes.  Children often want to have and do the opposite of what we believe is good for them.  Also, their need for care and attention can run counter to our other responsibilities and needs of our own.

As parents, fathers as well as mothers, we develop a range of skills to minimize and resolve conflict in order to create a more rewarding family life.  These skills are not only transferable, they are as essential to the workplace as they are to family living.  Raising children is more than a feather in our caps.  It is a much needed advanced degree in conflict resolution.

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