Combining motherhood with work outside the home is an emotional topic causing conflicts for many women. Despite the gains that have been made in meeting the needs of mothers, the work world is still one designed for a breadwinner/homemaker couple, and its demands conflict with the world of motherhood. Having to straddle these two worlds is a major source of stress. You start to feel that you are shortchanging your children, your work, or both.
But a deeper source of inner conflict for many women comes from our idealization of mother care. The idea that not only do children need a mother’s care, but that only a mother can meet her child’s needs, is still a very strong belief. Added to that is the emphasis in our culture on individualism and the conviction that individual care is superior care. This adds up to the message that a mother is supposed to take care of her own children and if she is working outside the home they are being shortchanged.
Many of the worries mothers have, and the difficulties they may get into with their children, come not from working outside the home but from their feelings about working away from home. Foremost is the feeling of guilt that maybe their children’s needs are not being met adequately. Whatever the form of child care - including full time mother care - there are always compromises, but mothers think those compromises would not have to be made if they were home.
The worry that maybe a child’s needs are not being met often leads to an attempt to compensate in some way and what children want gets mixed up with what children need. Mothers who are away all day say they don’t want to be disciplinarians during the limited time they have with their children. But their wish not to say “no” can lead to too many yeses. Sometimes appropriate expectations, such as bedtime, go by the board.
Mothers who work away from home are quick to attribute any bump in the road with their children to the fact that they are working. The problem with this is that it can keep you from looking at what else is going on for a child; either in other parts of his life or in what he may be struggling to master. Is something going on in school? Did she have a fight with a friend? What more specifically can address the need here? There can be several kinds of solutions if you move away from self-blame.
The conflict women feel may be particularly acute when they are working by choice, pursuing a career or work meaningful to them. It’s as though it is somehow wrong to be pursuing something meaningful to you on a personal level when you should be putting your children first. A conflict of needs and/or wishes is inherent in any relationship between people. Historically women have been expected to defer to the needs and wishes of others. In particular, part of the legacy of traditional motherhood is to sacrifice for your children.
As long as we value the individual relationship between mother and child, the challenge will be in creating a workable balance in the relationship between the two. Obviously, the younger the child the more required of the mother. But as children grow and mature the balance keeps changing as children learn, too, how to consider the needs of others.
As in everything else, there is no perfect solution to this age-old conflict. The answer does not lie in self-sacrifice. But one thing to give up is self-blame.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.