Keeping Afloat as a Modern Family

Families have had to adjust to increased work hours and an economic downturn, yet political and economic institutions have not adjusted to the increased need for childcare and part time work.  Despite these demands on parents, parenting these days is more conscious, shared and child centered.  So in the absence of systems in the U.S. that support the kind of balance needed to maintain strong marriages and raise healthy children, what is the modern family to do?

There has been a tremendous amount of energy and research poured into answering the question of whether working mothers stay at home with their young children or go back to work.  Countless articles and studies have been written about which scenario leads to better outcomes for children and families.  Some believe (and research supports) that children develop better physically, mentally and emotionally with strong attachment to a consistent, loving primary caregiver.  This camp highly supports mothers, no matter what their degree or salary, staying home to raise their children, especially under the age of 5.  Other studies have found no significant behavioral or academic differences for children who have working parents.  The debate about whether a woman should stay home to raise her children is really not the real issue.   Regardless of your personal bias or preference, the modern mother often has little choice about whether to work or not.  Financial burdens, schedules and children’s needs often dictate this family decision.  Women are working more and the mothers who are not working are not as happy as the ones who are.  Like all the other research on the modern parent, the impact of both increased work and increased commitment to one’s children is clear.   Parents, whether working or at home, are burnt out.

The Pew Research Center Study entitled “Modern Parenthood” released March 2013 found that 56% of mothers and 50% of fathers say juggling work and family life is difficult for them.  And among those with children under age 18, 40% of working mothers and 34% of working fathers say they always feel rushed. The study also highlights that a plurality of mothers (45%) and about four-in-ten fathers (41%) say the best thing for a young child is to have a mother who works part time.  And lastly, in a 2010 Pew poll, 72 percent of both women and men between 18 and 29 agreed that the best marriage is one in which husband and wife both work and both take care of the house.  Men and women have evolved in their views on gender equity.   But couples are more stressed. And part time employment for women who have to pick their children up at 2:30 is hard to come by.

In many families, both parents must work longer hours just to afford quality childcare (which is nonexistent in most communities) while they work full time hours. Between 1990 and 2000, average annual work hours for employed Americans increased. Many low-income workers are forced to work two jobs to get by.  As of 2000, the average dual-earner couple worked a combined 82 hours a week. So, the ideal of part time employment for mothers and shared household responsibilities is still a fantasy and less of a reality.

The lack of childcare is a particularly noteworthy thorn in the side of the modern family.  Since 1971, when Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, federally provided childcare has been reserved exclusively for disadvantaged families (available only with specific income level and employment requirements).  Private day care can range from $4-$10K a year, roughly 30% of the average family income (Childcare in the Hemisphere, Bisgaier, Jennifer.  Washington Report on the Hemisphere 33. 9. (June 7, 2013)).  And yet, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid employment covers only about 60% of workers.  These facts have literally put the U.S. in last place among developed nations in supports for working families.

These employment and childcare limitations in the midst of increased demands on parents have serious mental health implications that directly impact our children.  This is especially true for mothers who would prefer to work and are not.

When I had my son in 2008, it did not think twice about going back to work. It just didn’t even occur to me that I would leave my job and my life outside of the house to cook and do laundry and change diapers all day.  I took a six month maternity leave to bond with my son, reduced to a 4 day a week work schedule, and didn’t lose any sleep or self confidence over the fact that my son was being cared for in a loving daycare.  I was still contributing to the household income, still devoting all my hours at home to my son, and still able to feel some continuity between my old “working self” and my new “mother self.”  To be honest, I believe I would have been a hovering, anxious mess if I had abandoned my job for stroller walks to the park everyday at that point in my life.  Deep down I knew that not to go back to work would have made me lose my self-confidence and my sense of identity.  In short, I felt like I could be a better mother by going back to work.  Several studies have shown that I am not alone in this experience.  The situation was ideal.

Yet, when my daughter was born, and after a six month maternity leave, I attempted to go back to work very part time, my daughter dictated otherwise.  She screamed for hours while I was gone, not comfortable with anyone but me caring for her.  In the nonprofit field, I was barely earning enough to cover the cost of childcare and commuting, so it made sense financially and for my daughter’s benefit to stay at home.  Like so many other mothers, who made this choice to stay home, not quite by choice, it was no easy transition.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett conducted interviews of mothers who had left the work force in 2004 and 2009.  Her findings revealed a negative impact on these mother’s marriages and mental health.  Feeling powerless as an earner and being seen as solely responsible for household chores turned out to not be helping these women’s self esteem or self worth.  I could relate to many of these subtle shifts that occur when I stopped earning money and began doing more dishes and laundry than I ever could have imagined possible.  In addition to Hewlett’s work, the American Psychological Association was reporting more depression and worse general physical health among stay at home mothers by 2011.

Philip and Carolyn Cowan, psychologists and researchers from UC Berkeley, found increased tension in relationships where a working parent stayed at home after the birth of their first baby.  They noted the ways in which tensions increase when heterosexual couples revert to more traditional roles that they originally planned in their relationship.  For example, the woman may experience increased resentment that she/he is not getting the shared childcare expected and the man may experience hurt that his partner isn’t more grateful for the sacrifices he is making so she can stay home.  They found a typical coping mechanism was convincing oneself that the situation doesn’t actually bother you.  This kind of “myth” allows the family to function, but not at an expense to the marital relationship.

Political and economic institutions may be lagging, but it is always empowering to focus on what we con control in our personal lives and relationships.   If you are a modern parent stuck in a role that does not feel right to you, whether or not it was logically right to begin with, explore this with your partner.  Talk through where your values and ideals were before having children and look at where things have shifted for both of you.  If there is any resentment, you know that there is a problem.  Communicate with your spouse about what would make you feel less resentful or more appreciated.  In the absence of paid part time work, many mothers often regain a sense of self worth by volunteering and devoting themselves to something more “visible” than the daily childrearing and homemaking responsibilities that can go unnoticed.   Think simple.  The more activities parents and children are doing, the more hectic an already unmanageable schedule feels.  And lower expectations.  The more pressure you put on yourself, your partner and your children, the more tense things will be and the more resentment will build.  Most importantly, advocate for quality childcare in your community and encourage institutions to offer flexible schedules for working parents.  The more we take control over what is in our control, the more we role model a sense of agency to our children and make ourselves both physically and emotionally available to our partners and children.

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