Having been a stay-at-home mother for the early years of my children’s lives, my first return to work was on a very part-time basis. What I remember most vividly was the conflict that arose between my role as a mother and my professional work out of the home, despite my limited absence and responsible planning for my children during that time.
It seemed as though every school event involving my children, or parent/teacher conference, or school trip soliciting parental participation, was scheduled on the days I was at work. In addition, it felt as if conflicts between the children magnified to the point of requiring immediate resolution the moment I walked through the door upon my return from work.
I thought of this when reading an article pointing out that child-care proposals and workplace benefits all seem to involve leave for new mothers, or at best also fathers, in recognition of the requirements of infant care and other issues post childbirth. The point was that no thought is being given to the issues involved for parents of school-age children, such as not only those I remembered encountering but the need of both parents and children for parents to be involved in their children’s lives.
This points to what is missing in the ongoing discussion about the contemporary stresses of family life and the conflict between the requirements of the workplace and the problem of child-care. The issue creating stress is not just one of providing for the physical care of children when both parents are at work, as challenging as that is in itself. Nor is it only the matter of providing for after-school hours or school vacation times.
The question really being asked is what kind of parents do we want to be? What do we aspire to in our relationships with our children? And what kind of people would we like our children to be? These questions are implicit in many of the concerns expressed by parents, such as the amount of time spent by children in front of screens; computers, smart phones, and tech games, and their diminished interpersonal interaction both with peers and family members.
Also of concern, is the pressure parents feel to find the best education opportunities for their children and the pressure on children in turn to achieve academically to gain admission to the “best” schools. Preparation for economic success in life appears to have become an overriding goal in the responsibility parents feel for their children, particularly in light of the diminished time available to spend with them.
These issues are deeper than that of how to provide for the physical care of children. They come to the fore now that so many mothers are working outside of the home, changing the nature of family life. It is also mothers who are experiencing the conflicts involved as for both professional and economic reasons they move into new roles while still believing in, and trying to live up to a traditional definition of mother.
Feelings about who and what a mother is supposed to be run very deep, coming from our own experience as children as well as social, religious and historical constructs. Such feelings have been translated through research and theories about child development into concepts about what children need and the role of parents in meeting those needs. It is the legacy of these ideas that inform a woman’s aspirations as mother and are impossible to meet in the world as it is.
Fortunately, the increased involvement of men as fathers have brought them into the discussion. But the fact is, our current work world does not accommodate older theories about children and parents.
The question is, do we need to rethink our ideas about what children need and about our role as parents? Or is the goal to try to make the work world responsive to these needs?