Living With Conflict

The new revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s highly regarded play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” focuses attention on unresolved questions in an earlier form from an earlier time.  Having opened on Broadway first in 1989, the play ended the decade that began with Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having it All” in 1982.  That decade having begun with high expectations, Wasserstein reflects the questioning and perhaps disillusionment at its end.   

It is interesting to revisit the evolution of women’s choices and feelings during a period that marked a struggle to transform the role of women.  The 1970s, a time of militant feminism, was marked in a sense by avoiding the central conflict women were to face between caring for children – emotionally and physically – while pursuing personal goals.  The focus was on personal fulfillment and rejection of the traditional “housewife” label.  Children and families were not part of the scenario.

Brown herself, whose book played a role in the “having it all” unreality of the 1980s, never intended children to be part of the “all.”  But the fact was that women did find themselves with the wish – or need – for mates and children as part of the much emphasized “personal fulfillment.”  In the early ‘80s I was asked to do a survey for Redbook Magazine on how women felt about motherhood.  The results of the questionnaire and the letters women wrote revealed a renewed interest and desire to have children, particularly as an expression of being fulfilled as a woman.

These findings were not particularly welcome to some women who had made choices in a different direction, and to whom the new choices implied a rejection of their struggle for different opportunities.  Nevertheless, a new baby boom was on the way and the “solution” to “having it all” was to become “superwoman.”  This gave rise to the familiar ads in newspapers and magazines portraying a mom with a briefcase in one arm and a baby on the other.  The other Madison Avenue portrayal of reality was of dad in suit and tie carrying baby, the idea of dad taking over as the solution.   

The world has moved on bringing new realities.  Women as breadwinners have become the norm.  The economy as well as social changes no longer support the traditional picture of father as economic provider and mother as caretaker of home and children.  In increasing numbers women have become primary breadwinners and fathers have taken the role of child care.  Economic reality often replaces personal fulfillment.

Yet the conflict between personal goals and commitment to others that led to active rebellion three decades ago continues to find expression – often in unsatisfying solutions.  Increasingly, women who have the financial means have returned to full time motherhood in response to the stresses of combining child care with demanding jobs.  Some, like Sheryl Sandberg and her “Lean In” movement, seem to put the onus on women themselves to be more assertive in getting accommodations at work that allow for family responsibilities and getting equal participation from partners in work at home.

The conflict involved in all of this history and in present dilemmas is not one that can be resolved if the goal is to no longer experience conflict.  In our wish to rid ourselves of unpleasant conflicted feelings we continue the search for a solution to accomplish that goal.  But a conflict between personal needs and wishes and those of others is inherent in all human relationships and is especially strong in relationships with our dependent children.  Much of life consists of trying to balance which needs predominate in situations that occur daily.  

The inherent conflict in relationships is intensified by both internal and external factors that need to be addressed. On the social level, nostalgia for an earlier time has contributed to the failure to provide needed universal child-care supports.  On the internal level, destructive feelings of guilt on the part of mothers interfere with an ability to balance their own needs with those of their children.

Part of that guilt is an expression of the deep love and responsibility they feel for their children.  Part is the legacy of theories about children and mothers and children’s needs.  These theories were developed when the norm was mothers as full time caregivers, which then tied the meeting of children’s needs to mother care rather than to nurturing.   As a consequence, ideas about children’s needs and being a “good mother” have been distorted    

The real task, which has not yet been adequately addressed, is learning to live with feelings of conflict, recognizing that it is part of the human condition.