Having been an at-home mother for the early years of my children’s lives, my return to work was first on a very part-time basis. What I remember most was the conflict that arose between my role as a mother and my professional work despite my limited absence. It seemed as though every school event involving my children, or parent/teacher conference, or school trip soliciting parental participation, was scheduled on the days I was at work.

I thought of this when reading an article pointing out that child-care proposals and workplace benefits all seem to involve leave for new mothers, or at best also fathers, in recognition of the requirements of infant care and other issues post childbirth. The point was that no thought is being given to the issues involved for parents of school-age children, such as not only those I remembered encountering but the need of both parents and children for parents to be involved in their children’s lives.

This points to what is missing in the ongoing discussion about the contemporary stresses of family life and the conflict between the requirements of the workplace and the problem of child-care. The issue creating stress is not just one of providing for the physical care of children when both parents are at work, as challenging as that is in itself. Nor is it only the matter of providing for after-school hours or school vacation times.

The question really being asked is what kind of parents do we want to be? What do we aspire to in our relationships with our children? And what kind of people would we like our children to be? These questions are implicit in many of the concerns expressed by parents, such as the amount of time spent by children in front of screens, computers, smart phones, iPads and tech games, and their diminished interpersonal interaction both with peers and family members.

Also of concern, is the pressure parents feel to find the best education opportunities for their children and the pressure on children in turn to achieve academically to gain admission to the “best” schools. Preparation for economic success in life appears to have become an overriding goal in the responsibility parents feel for their children, particularly in light of the diminished time available to spend with them.

These issues are deeper than that of how to provide for the physical care of children. They come to the fore now that so many mothers are working outside of the home, changing the nature of family life. It is also mothers who are experiencing the conflicts involved as they move into new roles while still believing in and trying to live up to a traditional definition of mother.

Feelings about who and what a mother is supposed to be run very deep, coming from our own experience as children as well as social, religious and historical constructs. Such feelings have been translated through research in child development into theories about what children need and the role of parents in meeting those needs.

It is the legacy of these ideas that inform a woman’s aspirations as mother and are impossible to meet in the world as it is.

Fortunately, the increased involvement of men as fathers have brought them into the discussion. The fact is that our current work world does not accommodate older theories about children and parents for mothers or fathers.

The question is, do we need to rethink our ideas about what children need, about our role as parents? Or can the work world be made responsive to these needs?
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.