Why Telling Working Moms to Lower their Standards on Parenting Is Actually a Bit Insulting

cartoon made using Toondoo

cartoon made using Toondoo

An acquaintance from law school recently posted the following on Facebook:

Just wondering – are there any parents out there who work full-time and don’t constantly feel like they are coming perilously close to failing at everything? If so I would like to know your secrets, especially if they don’t involve substance abuse.

My friend is an accomplished legal professional and mom of three. I appreciated her candor and vulnerability, so I weighed in with my own 2 cents about the challenges of work and parenting.

Including mine, there were about 25 responses. Most were kind attempts at reassuring my colleague that she has high standards and is doing a great job. One suggested that she might ease off at work at times (alternating by easing off at parenting). Others chimed in to say, with sympathy, that they experience the concern about failing at parenting as well. But what struck me was the unmistakable sub-current through the comments that parenting — of the two “jobs” — was the one she should worry less about.

One friend said: “Parent” is more or less a pass/fail course, and failure is a flexible concept.” Another came outright with: “Lower your standards. Do not let the great be the enemy of the good.” Another, sweeter version, was:

I think that parenthood, by definition, means feeling like you are, or are about to, fail. But, you aren’t! You are doing fabulously. But, when you feel like you aren’t – cut yourself some slack and give yourself permission to let go of things that don’t have to be done, ask for help when you need it and know that as long as your kid is clothed, fed and loved you have done your job. Oh, and wine.

I have no doubt that the intent of these comments was entirely positive. They were merely trying to cheer up a friend: one with high standards for many aspects of her life and aspirations. And the last one was funny, and had some sound advice. I happen to agree, among her other points, that wine is a necessary aid to family life.

But I came away wondering whether a quiet but clear devaluation of the skills and time needed to be a great parent is in fact one of the problems working moms face. It’s so much a part of the culture it’s an essentially invisible bias. Just ask yourself: of the jobs that working moms have today — is it really the case that their paid work is more important? To whom? Even those of us (like me) who find tremendous satisfaction in our work, and work on issues we find meaningful, still love our kids more than our work. Of course we do.

Just at the level of practical demands on parents, here are the tasks involved to do that job:

  1. Finding affordable, reliable, safe and appropriate child care arrangements, schools, after-care, holidays and summer activities;
  2. Attending events related to the above, paying bills on time as needed or volunteering as expected;
  3. Cleaning the house, doing laundry, dishes, etc., or paying others to help with same;
  4. Shopping for groceries, seasonally appropriate, suitable and correctly sized clothes, any needed sports equipment, car seats or other gear, as well as developmentally appropriate books and toys;
  5. Making breakfast, lunches, snacks, dinners;
  6. Celebrating birthdays and holidays;
  7. Finding suitable, well-located physicians that accept your insurance, including pediatricians, eye doctors, dentists, and any other specialist needed; oh, and…
  8. Playing with, talking to, and reading to your child.

Even if we were phoning it in (and let’s face it, none of us really are), this is a ton of real work. Yet the hard truth is that you could do all this and still feel like, at some level, you are failing. Does that mean that the folks on Facebook are right to tell my colleague to let her hair down a bit?

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say, no. While it shouldn’t be about generating anxiety, thinking hard and carefully about how well we did today (or are doing generally) at this most important job — helping to guide a human being in formation — strikes me as, well, another job of parents.

If we feel something isn’t right with how we are making choices, or in our conversations with our child, or how we structure the time we do have with our kids, we need to take a closer look at see if something large or small should shift to make it better. The intuitions involved here are important, and should be valued. Our gut is telling is something about our relationships, or what our child needs. There are no do-overs on this one: paying attention in real time is the best guide we have to what’s going on, what could be improved, and when we need to call in the Calvary.

There is a tremendous amount to learn in parenting, from the practical to the emotional, and thinking about parenting (and unpacking our own inherited family baggage) is an important part of the learning process. All of us intend to be great parents, but it’s a job that changes rapidly all the time, often without notice, and that inevitably triggers left-over stuff from growing up. There’s almost always things to notice about your child and yourself that surprise, challenge and humble you.

Yes, trying to be good at it (as my friend clearly is) matters, and keeping kids clothed and fed and safe is essential, but trying is not enough, and those other pre-requisites are not enough either. It’s not a surprise to me that women who are high achievers in their professional lives want to reach for more with parenting, too. Creating a real, stable bond with any child requires responsiveness, patience, steadiness around limits, highly intentional communication and a crazy-making level of tolerance for needless emotional outbursts over the wrong shoes. At least if you have a kid like mine.

And our lives are hectic, ruled by contradictory impulses and goals. A parent’s time and level of availability to accomplish these moods with our kids are under constant pressure. Even when we do have time together, slowing down to have a sense of ease, to allow for play, and to create calm is often not easily accomplished. Becoming a parent who says less, but is emotionally present, who observes more, who is earnestly delighted by their child, who finds pleasure in between the hassles and deadlines and schlepping, this is the goal, and everything about the way we live inveighs against this connection.

There are also steep — even untenable — political costs to the pretense that the current situation is acceptable for working parents. We are the first generation, really, of women committed equally to work and family. What we are discovering is that there is incredible meaning in both work and parenting (which is one reason I object to Sheryl Sandberg’s framing: “leaning in” and “leaning back” implicitly assumes the thing that matters most is work).

Yet there are not supports for parenting that both value who we are — and what we aspire to — and hold open space for us to do other things when we are ready. The New York Times piece last week on the shrinking options for women who left the workforce to have families a short decade ago made maddeningly clear the punishment they face for their choices.

Add to that the grotesque over-burdening of families from the lack of reliable, affordable and safe daycare and preschool options, the anemic child care tax credits, the inflexibility of employers on workplace policies, including flex-time and part-time work, and the generally terrible economy, and you have a recipe for trapping women (and men) in ambivalence, feelings of incommensurability, and yes, even failure. Other countries have solved these issues far better than we have here. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic social science.

It is up to us, then, to talk clearly, even angrily, about the impossibility of our lives in this uniquely American and ruthless economy. Given all this, I don’t want to be told, even by sympathetic friends trying to be kind, to lower my standards on parenting. I want a system that works for everyone — working moms and dads, work-at-home moms and dads, and those without families too.

The kids we are raising today in this stretched-tight world are the grown-ups of tomorrow. They will inherit a complicated world, and have much repair to do. They need what we have to give them, as parents, and as people who speak up for the significance of parenting. Let’s not accept less on their behalf, and reassure each other it has to be enough. Instead, let’s make space to make sure they get what they need, first, and aspire also — dare we dream? — to love our lives as parents and workers, both.

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Talking to Toddlers: A Eureka Moment

Redheaded child mesmerized.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In a more-or-less crash course on how to deal with a near-two-year-old, I’ve flipped through a significant number of parenting books full of perky, preachy “dos and don’ts” on talking to toddlers. They typically include tips on how to distract toddlers from a sudden obsession by introducing a different new toy, how to be soothing when an injury occurs (“You’re ok“), or how to structure daily routines in the hopes of minimizing conflict.

And yet I had a gnawing sensation that few of my responses to our daily situations were landing right with Maya. Indeed, it seemed her very set-up, which is all about testing boundaries, was to push relentlessly on all of the serious limitations of this paltry toolbox of tricks. After all, if the corny dialogue in these books failed to hold my interest, how rich are they as a structure for a relationship between a parent and child?

On the other hand, when I actually sat down and read some of the latest fascinating explorations of the infant mind, such as Alison Gopnik‘s The Philosophical Baby, it became clear that, with the research that has become available in only the past decade or so, we now know a lot more about the inner lives of pre-verbal toddlers. We know, for example, that even very young infants connect cause and effect, have rich emotional and imaginative lives, and are more like people in miniature than we guess — meaning that the mix of inauthenticity, expectations for performative little moments (“come give mommy a hug”) and condescension we show them much of the time must grate a little, to say the least.

So imagine my delight when the director of Maya’s new preschool sent around an article about a philosophy of infant and child interaction called Resources in Educare, or RIE, which precisely addressed some of the missing pieces of this puzzle.

RIE, as a school of thought, was popularized in the U.S. by Magda Gerber, an author and teacher who brought a distinct philosophical approach to interactions with infants. One RIE disciple, Janet Lansbury, has a blog called Elevating Child Care that includes many interesting posts that I have since found helpful for dealing with older children.

I’m currently reading Gerber’s book, Your Self-Confident Baby, and while, predictably, I don’t agree with everything in it, there’s a lot to like as well. I’ll be posting a fuller review when I’m finished.

But I don’t want to wait, because right away, I have found her and Lansbury’s analysis of toddler psychology to be revealing and incredibly useful in my conversations with Maya. My instant take-aways to her writing and Lansbury’s thoughtful posts thus far include the following:

  1. It’s preferable to be authentic than falsely cheerful in that “toddler tone.”
  2. Distracting a child who is focused on a task, even a frustrating or inappropriate one, may encourage a lack of sustained attention.
  3. You can usefully (and thankfully!) drop the urge to entertain and allow child-directed play instead. (Given the literature on the importance of relationship-building and engagement, I sometimes feel Gerber takes the “do not teach” imperative a bit too far, but I get her point: parents, including me, play “the expert” all too much and fail to let children just learn for themselves.)
  4. Resist the impulse to always correct a toddler’s verbal mistakes — language acquisition is hard enough without fear of being caught in a mistake!
  5. Don’t say “you’re ok” impulsively whenever there is an injury or perceive hurt — it’s minimizing and mostly serves the interests of the parent, who needs the child to be ok. Instead, ask, “what happened?” first, which is far more respectful, and may actually give you information you may need.
  6. Call out the intention of the child in a conflict and set boundaries clearly instead of just saying “no” loudly and repeatedly, which is the “technique” we had been trying. LOL. (Most exciting is that this actually works, mostly, as you’ll see below — Eureka!)

The overall point is that parents unwittingly and with all good intentions over-ride and blot out children’s own particular intentions, emotions, and useful frustrations in an attempt to make behavior more manageable, acceptable and pleasant. Yet these confrontations with the facts of the world are incredible learning moments.

While we must not ignore the social expectations others will have for toddlers, and we should communicate clearly about boundaries, we also don’t have to let them know “the rules” in a way that dishonors or denies their feelings or motivations.

Cockily, I thought that we were doing pretty well by allowing Maya child-directed play as her main activity, and that we were respectful in our dealings with her. But when I had this “aha” moment, I was actually shocked to reflect upon how much of my dialogue with Maya still revolved around an attempt to conform her behavior through manipulation, often against her obstinate will to do some other thing instead.

In these tiny but powerful struggles, I would tell her “no” to something and witness the internal battle that raged within her, as she struggled to alter her desires to match mine. Mostly, of course, that struggle placed my request for compliance firmly on the losing side. And then had to be reinforced again, more loudly. You can see why this “strategy” was destined for failure.

But the other night, at the pool, with RIE in my pocket, things were different. The stage for an epic battle was set when Maya wandered 10 or so feet away from me close to some large steps leading up a hill, and I was still in the water. It was the ultimate test — could I control her with my voice alone?

I summoned my calmest, most determined voice, and tried the RIE approach, saying clearly, “Maya, I can see you want to go up the stairs [naming her intention]. But you may not go up the stairs because I am still in the pool, and you may not go up the stairs without me. That is the rule. [naming the rule and reason]. Please walk back to me.”

A woman was standing nearby, and I would swear that when these words came out of my mouth she looked over at Maya and shook her head, ever so slightly. Yeah, right, lady, I could almost see her thinking, that’ll work.

But here’s the thing that truly shocked me: it did!

Maya gave out an involuntary little squeal like a angry pterodactyl, balled and unballed her fists, then turned and walked back to me. By the time she got back, she was actually smiling. (I may have, though I can’t really be sure, shot the lady a brief, smug look as Maya was heading back my way.)

I’ve since tried this approach at other times, and I would have to say that even when it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s still far better than the former tactic of escalating “no’s” or even, threatened consequences, Supernanny style. It feels more respectful, recognizes Maya’s intentions and desires, and forces me to articulate our roles and whatever principle may be stake. As a geek and lawyer, I can’t help but think of it as basic due process for children.

As this implies, when Maya is fully verbal, I may need new tools to avoid her lawyering everything to death. But for now, I would say, I’ve finally stumbled across a set of working guidelines that serve our family interactions far better than our former muddling-through.

I hope these few insights are useful to you as well, and I would encourage anyone working through similar issues to check out RIE and Lansbury’s site. If you have techniques you like, please do share as well.