Having children brings about a major life change. Does a parent stay home or go back to work? It's something that's been discussed, debated and written about many times. Emotions regarding this issue tend to be extreme. This article intends to look at the underlying issues behind these feelings. It is written as a challenge; we must evaluate our needs and wants. Society has led us to believe that materialism is the key to happiness. What we must really focus on is satisfying our basic family needs. Something is a true need if it is necessary for basic survival, but a want is only a desire, frequently a luxury not critical for a family's existence. We all need food, clothing and shelter. Children need the love of their parents, and husbands and wives need time to maintain the relationship that brought them together. Parents may want a luxury car, an expensive home in the suburbs, and a dream vacation.
Children need their parents and this need must be taken very seriously. One can find many articles stating the benefits of day care, the rights of women to work and earn equal pay, and other "feminist" issues. One can also find articles about the negative effects of being a latch key kid, problems that arise from poor parent involvement in their children's school, and the stresses of trying to be a "supermom." I will present an approach to this dilemma that will help parents organize and simplify their thinking in determining what is truly a need of their family. The following case study demonstrates the use of this method.
A family was referred to me for counseling because their six-year-old son had behavior problems and was described by them as "high maintenance." He had difficulties at home and at school. He was a slow poke getting ready in the morning, often times needing either parent to finish dressing him and tying his shoes. His mother even admitted that she had, on occasion, fed him his cereal, "because I can get it done a lot faster." In the classroom he had trouble finishing his work and staying focused, though he wasn't disruptive. The teacher reported that he rarely ate his hot lunch. Most days he shoveled the food around on his tray and eagerly disposed of it when the recess bell rang. In the after care program there were never reports of misbehavior. As a matter of fact, the child care worker had to think hard to remember the child. Both parents reported that once home, around 6 p.m., their lives were chaotic. While trying to make dinner, the mother was interrupted numerous times to help him with homework, chores or bathing. She assumed that he was old enough to do these tasks with minimal supervision. Dinner was rarely peaceful. The six-year-old often spilled his milk or food, needed help to use the bathroom, or frequently interrupted his frustrated parents' conversation with meaningless statements or noises.
Finally the parents sought counseling because their son wasn't outgrowing his "neediness." They were wondering if he had ADHD or some serious psychological disorder. The thought had come to them that he just might be lonely and they were thinking of having another child to provide him with a companion.
After a few sessions with the parents we were able to conclude several things:
1. They were not happy with their family life.
2. They were concerned about their son's development.
3. They wanted to change.
Based on the above information we began to recommend steps to remedy the situation. First, their son was evaluated for attentional and learning problems. We were able to determine that he was a bright boy and attentive with no learning problems. Their concern about his development needed to be addressed from a psychological not a neurological point of view. Since both parents were motivated to improve their situation we began to discuss the family dynamics. When counseling began to focus on the parents, the mood of the sessions shifted. It was almost as if they took a big sigh of relief! We discussed how harassed they felt. From the time they got up in the morning and prepared for work until they climbed into bed at night they barely had a chance to communicate with one another.
The mother discussed her frustration at trying to be a dedicated worker and good mother. She felt guilty that she didn't have time to make her son's lunch, pick him up right after school, take him to extracurricular activities and patiently assist him with homework.
The father hesitantly admitted that he wished he, alone, could financially support his family. He felt guilty that his wife had to work and could see that their family life suffered because they were so busy trying "to make ends meet." It was at this point that we took inventory and they began to simplify their lives.
The following check list proved helpful in delineating "needs" from "wants":
I had each parent complete their own check list. The "needs" column only included food, clothing, and shelter. The dollar amount was entered by each person to demonstrate the relative importance of each item. The "wants" column was left completely up to the discretion of each parent, including the dollar amount. The lists were compared and the combined check list included only the "wants" that were on both parent's lists.
For homework they were to use the new check list and together determine a dollar amount for each item. When that was completed we focused on the "needs," challenging them further with the following questions:
1. How often did they eat out?
2. Did they buy expensive single serving items at the market?
3. Where did they shop for clothing and shoes?
4. Did they plan seasonal shopping trips or purchase items impulsively?
5. Was their housing adequate?
6. Could they live comfortably in a smaller, less expensive house?
For two weeks they examined their "needs" and were able to agree on a comfortable dollar amount for each item. They kept their "wants" list and even added to it at times. After several weeks we met again. They determined that by moving to a smaller house, eating out less and not shopping for "extra" things the mother was able to work part time. Six months later they came in for another visit. They were comfortable with their lives, very happy as a family and their son was doing well in school and at home. They were ready to have another baby and between the mom, dad and grandmother the new baby and son would be cared for at home by a family member. They still had their "wants" list and they were able to replace their old family vehicle with a new mini van. It took them careful planning to be able to afford it but it was worth the wait. Next year they're hoping to upgrade their computer. And their summer vacation ended up being a house swap with cousins who live near the beach. This couple was motivated to improve their lives, make changes and therefore was successful in meeting the needs of their child.
The challenge is to simplify. This may mean a change in lifestyle. With some serious discussion, participation and support from both parents it is possible to give our children what they need. But, it must be supported by both parents, not undermined by one, as in the following case.
A couple came for marital counseling. They had two children and were motivated to stay together but found themselves angry and frustrated with each other. After two sessions they had a heated confrontation. The husband explained that he worked hard to earn enough money for his family to be comfortable. He wanted his wife to stay home with their two preschool age children. The wife explained that she needed to work to make ends meet. I had them use my check list.
Even after scaling down and simplifying their lives (on paper) the wife insisted she needed to work. Focusing on this concept she was able to admit that she loved working, enjoyed earning an income, had fun with her coworkers AND could not imagine being home with her children all day. She insisted that she'd "go crazy" if she was limited to that. She saw day care as an adequate way of taking care of her children and was not willing to give up her job. Only one parent was motivated to change their life. The father was willing to change his work schedule, but because he earned significantly more money he had to maintain his job. The mother was not willing to change her hours or her job.
For this family, the children's needs were not adequately met. In all fairness, this mother probably would not have been a very good stay-at-home mom. She made it clear that she wanted and enjoyed working, and she reiterated that she would "go crazy" if she had to stay home and just be a mother. She never showed any guilt or regret that her children were in day care and away from her most of the day. My recommendation for this family was to stay connected to their extended family, relying on them to help care for their children as much as possible. And more importantly, to seriously consider not adding any more children to their family so as not to burden other people with raising them. Since change was not feasible the father must accept the mother's psychological needs, and as parents they must dedicate their work-free hours to their children. Free time for themselves would be limited, but there are only so many hours in the day, and the needs of the innocent children must be met.
The challenge of the single working parent is immense. It is not a matter of needs vs. wants. The work demand is for needs only. Children need their parents, but most single parents must work. In my past case experience the use of extended family is critical. The single working parent must live near or with them. For the sake of their children, for continuity and for support, the best alternative to a two-parent home is one with the support of extended family. Enlisting grandparents and aunts or uncles is key. They can offer children love, direction and discipline. They can be a substitute parent. This is obviously not a perfect solution but provides stability for the children and some free time for the single parent.
Children really need their parents. They need us to hold them and love them, to wipe their noses and tie their shoes, to kiss them good-bye on their way to school, to be waiting for them when they get home, to drive them to practice and be on the sidelines cheering during their competitions or performances. They need us as much as they need food, clothing and shelter.
It is our responsibility to take care of their needs, even when it means sacrificing on our part. After all, it was our choice to bring them into this world. The obligation of parenting our children may dictate a simpler life style, but may prove to be the key to a family's happiness.