The old gender role division of labor has changed and with it the assumption that women would fill their old job description. While the world has opened for women, no satisfactory replacement for their former role has been found. The reality of that fact has been addressed largely by families left to fend for themselves as best they can.
The discussion, such as it is, tends to be as polarized as so much else in our political life. There are those who believe that mothers should be home caring for their children and that children are damaged in the absence of such care. Yet advocates for women cite all kinds of research studies to prove that children’s development is completely normal when mothers work.
But the issue is not normal development or damage. Rather a basic problem is the conflict of needs between mothers and children. Mothers have needs that may be economic, but also reflect the need/wish to be more than mothers. Children have needs that may be based on their dependency, but that also reflect the need/wish for care from their mothers. As in every relationship, the challenge is deciding whose needs will prevail at any given point where they conflict.
The conflict presents itself daily in the course of everyday life and has to be decided each time it arises. Is my child’s need or want the priority right now, or is mine? The real problem arises when a mother has no choice in how she responds to this question. Mothers individually deal with the anxiety and guilt these questions provoke, questions that are not answered in the statistics offered about children’s development.
The acknowledgement of the conflict of needs that exists between women as mothers, and children, is fairly recent. For a significant number of years the role division between the sexes was taken for granted, as was the idea that women’s needs were met as wives and mothers. The modern women’s movement played a major role in bringing about change both in attitudes toward women’s needs, and in achieving greater opportunity in the workplace. Change in the economy has now moved that along.
Unfortunately, the early struggle for increased opportunity was focused on equality, the idea that women could function in the workplace just as men did. The issue of motherhood was either disregarded or dealt with unrealistically, so that the problems of child care and the needs of children were ignored. But the fact is that women have to be treated unequally in order to have equal opportunity in the workplace. What that means is that the changed role of women requires providing for the traditional jobs that had been filled by women, primarily the job of child care. Mothers need a support system in order to function in the workplace.
This basic problem has still not been solved, and the resistance to doing so remains. Part of the resistance lies in the fact that there is no solution that will duplicate a cherished belief in the family life that existed in the old division of labor. That role division placed too great a burden on both women and men. Nor is it the only good way of raising children. But in the changing attention given to different needs, the balance has shifted in important ways away from children.
As in dealing with the many societal changes that have taken place in modern times, we need to be creative in finding solutions that do not rest on the sacrifice of any one of the parties in basic human relationships – including children.