We made it through “having it all” and “superwoman.” Then came the balancing act with ads showing women moving along briskly with a baby on one arm and a briefcase on the other. But balancing work and family has turned out to be more difficult than the ads made it seem. Less of an act and more of a challenge, especially with as yet unsolved issues of child care and family leave time.
In this political season much attention has been paid to the idea of providing needed supports for working mothers, especially in the areas of child care and paid leave for family responsibilities. As important and necessary as these supports are for parents and children, the question of balance has a deeper aspect as well. This relates to the conflict many parents – especially mothers – feel about whether their children’s needs are being met. Conflicts that are not resolved even with alternate superb child-care (of which there is far too little in any case.)
A working mother of two school-age children told me that she had received a call from the school nurse saying her seven-year-old was being sent home because he was tired. The mom hearing this while at work was aghast, and told the nurse she was tired, too. This was no reason to be sent home – rather he should be sent back to class. Her feeling was that they don’t want to deal with anything at school requiring additional attention.
I complimented the mother on being able to consider her own needs in that situation and also asked if her employer was understanding about child care demands. She smiled meaningfully and said, “Yes, if you get your work done.” In response to my commending her on her own behavior she told me anguish about her sister who is the “perfect” mother – always there for her children, making superb meals, attending to all family matters, and in general a model mother for this mother. She always compares herself unfavorably to her sister.
That unrealistic image of the “perfect” mother still lingers – the mother who is always there for her children meeting all their needs. Aside from the fact that such a goal is unattainable, it is not desirable – either for children or mothers. Children mature and grow as they learn that other people also have needs and wishes that have to be given consideration. This is where the challenge of balance comes into it. In real life the question becomes which needs should be given priority in any given situation.
When this mother got that call she had to answer that question on the spot. How important was it that her son come home? Was he just tired or was he getting sick? Was he avoiding something going on in his class at that time? Was he just in need of some attention – hers? What would be the consequences for her if she left work at that time? Was this the kind of emergency that warranted leaving work? Undoubtedly, all those questions flashed through her mind while having to decide how to respond.
The point is that these kinds of questions requiring decisions come up daily in life. In order to answer them a parent must be able to take the needs of all into consideration, knowing there are no perfect answers. Mistakes will be made at times but they are not catastrophic. Making a mistake is not an indictment of one as a mother or father.
What makes this difficult in part, is having to assess what children really need at various points. This means knowing your own child – not some hypothetical child in a book. Children often feel they need what they wish for, and can convey those feelings in strong emotional ways. It becomes up to a parent to decide which it is at any given time. You can’t always get what you want is an important lesson of growing up – although it is nice if you can sometimes.
Parents like to give to their children. The challenge of balance is to consider the needs of both.