In the ongoing discussion about the conflicts that exist between work and family life, the magic word always seems to be balance. The implication is that the solution lies in finding the right balance between the demands of each. But what does balance mean, and how does one find it?
The idea of balance suggests equality - the scales weighing evenly on each side. But that doesn’t reflect life in the real world. Certainly not the reality of the work world or of family life. The world of work consists of demands that one is obliged to meet, demands that allows little room for family needs that often impinge.
The reality is that children require care, requiring the need for substitute child care when parents work outside the home. Children sometimes get sick, complicating further the need for that care. When children are of school age there are demands for a parent’s availability to meet with teachers or to follow-up on special needs that may arise, summoning parents to school.
This limited picture of reality does not consider the kind of care parents would like to give their children. It is here that the kind of conflicts parents experience come into play. These conflicts are a result not only of the demands of work, but also of both social and internal pressures.
The external social pressures come from often changing ideas about child-rearing methods and meeting children’s needs. In these days of social media there is advice galore on the best way to deal with the various developmental stages and behavior of children. Parents are held accountable if problems arise or if children’s behavior fails to meet expectations.
Internal pressures come into play when parents lose confidence dealing with their children. This loss of confidence comes from not trusting one’s own knowledge of one’s child. The idea that there is a “right” way to do everything reinforces that lack of trust.
Lacking confidence in turn often leads to a lack of assurance in responding to children.
Parents become uncertain when they read some problem into a child’s behavior which they think needs some special response. Much of this behavior is often the result of children not acting in accordance with parental wishes, or becoming defiant. A parent will say about a preschooler, “I can’t get her to stop kicking me.” Or of an older child, “He pays no attention to anything I ask him to do.”
The loss of parental authority may come from the feeling that a parent is away at work so much that time spent at home should not be spent as a disciplinarian. But the issue is not discipline so much as the need for firm, assertive authority. Authority is not the same as authoritarian. It is neither, “I’m the boss” or letting the child be boss.
Children’s behavior can provoke anger. Feeling that anger can make a parent fearful of his or her own aggression - the fear that a response will be dangerous. But unlike their children, adults hopefully are mature enough to control their angry feelings and respond with needed assurance to their children’s behavior.
The pressure of dealing with these kinds of family interactions is part of what makes the combination with work outside the home so stressful. But the fact is that under the best of circumstances this dual functioning requires daily compromises. There is always the question of which needs will take priority in any given situation.
Perhaps the issue is not one of balance but of an ability to live with conflict and make compromises that will never be perfect.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner 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.