My wife, Nancy, sometimes jokes that the only down time she gets to herself between sunrise and sunset during the week is when she drives home from work. Oh, the calming effects of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Lake Shore Drive.
By day, Nancy is the full-time director of a nonprofit organization that has more than 80 member agencies. Even more important, she is always the mom of a busy family with four members–herself, me and our two girls, 5-year-old Dina and 2-year-old Ally.
The complicated balance my wife and many other women try to strike between work and family is a topic she and I have talked about since before our oldest daughter was born. It’s also intertwined with my own work life. What is my wife’s role in the family? What is mine? Should she work full or part time? Should I? How much money do we need to bring in? How will our choices impact our careers? Who will be home for the kids—and at what time?
Whew. Let’s take a breath. I guess it would be convenient to break down the many factors one by one, as if our lives could be charted on a PowerPoint presentation. Forget that, though. The overriding question is: “How do our work lives affect our children?”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but it’s one we keep asking. We have to. Like us, most families we know with two working parents don’t have a choice. They do it for the money.
I didn’t learn this firsthand until we had kids that working and raising a family at the same time–at least for us–is a very different experience for Mom than it is for Dad.
Maybe that’s one reason we’re seeing a slew of books on the subject that capitalize on the conflicting feelings some women–and their partners—may feel these days. Books like Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms, among others, focus on the challenges mothers face in a world of heightened opportunities and expectations.
There may be no time when the challenge my wife faces is more obvious than when she returns home from work after a busy day. Between 5:30 and 6 p.m., our daughters provide a no-holds-barred demonstration of their feelings for Mommy, charging Nancy like linebackers who smell the quarterback. I can do as much as possible to help, but when I watch this reunion it’s clear to me that our girls sometimes simply need their mom in an intense and immediate way. And she is there for them.
I contacted a few experts on family related issues, all of whom acknowledge the extraordinarily complicated challenge women face as they try to be workers and moms at the same time.
One notes the “pervasive experience” of working women who work as many hours as their husbands but face a different reality when they come home.
“I don’t know if we can point to definitive data about the difference between how young children respond to mothers and fathers,” says Sydney Hans, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Hans directs the unit for research in child psychiatry and development at the school. “But during those first few years of life, providing a sense of safety and security seems to be what mothers are often good at doing,” he says.
If that’s true–if the time my young kids spend with their mom reassures them in some fundamental way–what are they missing when she’s not home?
Hans points to a landmark, ongoing study conducted by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development that seeks to determine how variations in childcare are related to children’s development. The study’s early findings, released in 1997, suggested that the amount of time children spend in childcare doesn’t have a negative impact on their cognitive development–or their attachment to their mothers.
Hans, who has two teenage children, says she remembers thinking the findings were surprising–even as they appeared to provide a reassuring message to working moms.
“Parents think that being with their kids matters and deeply believe they are important to their child,” she says. “But they also want to know that when they are not there, children are able to thrive.”
My wife and I are happy with the decisions we’ve made, though we occasionally have mixed feelings about them. Along the way, we have come to accept a complicated yet powerful reality: Our girls need their mom, but they also need to know that mom’s and dad’s jobs are equally important to our family.
All in all, we know we’re lucky. We are blessed with an excellent childcare provider and flexible jobs. We also agree about the importance of putting up boundaries when work gets in the way of our family life–and encouraging each other to take a break once in a while.
We know that raising kids requires constant juggling and that Mom may be more overloaded in that scenario than anyone. Still, maybe our culture somehow has the work-family challenge backward in a big way. How many families do you know that benefit from a paid family leave policy when they have a child? How many struggle to find decent childcare options?
These questions lead to more questions. I do frequently marvel at how my wife “really does it,” but I wonder if there’s a double standard at play here for working moms–and dads. If my wife or I need to work late a few nights in a row, we talk about it (sometimes in calm tones, sometimes not) and figure something out. If a mom or dad completes a work project late or misses a few important business meetings, are employers quite as understanding about it?
The question now is not just “How does she really do it?” It’s “How we can make things a little better for working families?”
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at email@example.com