A mother of two preschool age children asked what I thought about mothers working outside of the home. How important is it for mothers to be home with their children and until what age of the children? Although earlier this seemed to be a burning social question, it seemed to have faded in the face of the reality that mothers today are working outside the home.
On the other hand, that reality has also led to much discussion about balance. How are we to arrive at a balance between work and family life? Although this discussion involves fathers as well as mothers, the issue for mothers has been the weight of the traditional role of motherhood, or the value of full-time motherhood as against the value of other kinds of work or self-expression in addition to the need to supplement family income.
Whether working either by choice or financial need, the central issue with which many parents struggle is how to balance children’s needs with one’s own needs. The reason it is a struggle is that there is no single, or “right” answer. A mother of a young child told me she found the hardest part was the ongoing nature of the conflict she felt. She had thought the conflict was simply between deciding to work and being a full-time mother. Instead, she found that every day decisions had to be made about what she perceived as the needs of her child versus the demands of her work.
How one responds to these every day questions is influenced by the choice of parenting philosophy or approach one chooses to adhere to, and one’s personal history plays a large role in such choices. Whatever it is that determines these choices, the choices themselves play a big role in determining one’s attitudes not only about the mothering-work conflict, but also about the daily interactions with children.
All of the approaches to child-rearing have a point of view regarding the needs of children, the importance of these needs, and the nature and degree of response that is required from parents. Many of these approaches are prescriptive, so another influence on one’s behavior as a parent is the importance we ascribe to “experts” and authority.
As the mother I referred to pointed out, she constantly had to decide what was more important in a particular situation, what her son needed or wanted, or what her own needs were. What complicates the question even more is that children can feel as if they really need something they want. If your child doesn’t feel well, is she really sick? Should she stay home from school if it means you have to miss work? If he begs you not to leave when you go out, should you stay home with him?
Some of these questions may feel easier to answer than others, but the answers do depend in part not only on what you know about your own child, but also on how strongly you feel about the importance of certain kinds of responses to your child. In other words, can you accept and tolerate a measure of frustration or unhappiness in your child? And even if you can, how do you determine what is an acceptable amount and what is not?
There are no “right” answers to such questions, which is why balancing needs consists of an ongoing set of questions which parents have to answer in terms of themselves and their own children.
Perhaps the real “mommy war” is the struggle within ourselves that we parents experience in trying to answer them.