Think of the Children: Who’s Missing in Work-Life Balance Conversations

On our 4th of July road trip to visit the grandparents, my hubby and I indulged one of our favorite activities in the car – reading magazine articles (Go ahead and sound the nerd alert, I’m not offended). I purchased a regional magazine and the July/August 2013 issue of The Atlantic.

The headline in The Atlantic that first captured our attention was “How Long Can a Woman Wait to Have a Baby?” The article that created the most jabbering between us, “The Masculine Mystique” by Stephen Marche, was a different side of the same conversation. The arguments in the latter article were hard to follow and wavered between a self-lauding essay and a bitter reproof of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Ironically, I found my reaction to Marche’s essay startlingly similar to my reaction to Sandberg’s Lean In: What about the children?

Sandberg’s book encourages mothers to “lean in” at work and to not be afraid of taking more responsibility professionally while they have children. Marche’s essay attempted to explain how the role of father has changed and needs to be included in these discussions of women’s achievement vis-à-vis career advancement and caring for children. Neither concept is bad or unworthy of consideration, but the glaring omission of considering a child’s needs when making career decisions is shocking.

I’m not talking about the “thank-goodness-we-have-daycare” response that Marche alludes to at one point: “Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike,” or the “I-make-sure-I’m-home-for-dinner” compromise that Sandberg shared. I’m talking about the “when-we-make-this-decision (whatever it is)-what-is-best-for-our-children” conversation.

I’ve met women who have opted to continue working, but who have done so with the firm conviction that it will provide the best circumstances and example for their children. I’ve met women, myself included, who have leaned in the other direction, and who believe it is the best option for their families to be at home. I’ve met couples who have finagled a work-at-home environment for one and a work-in-the-office situation for the other; some couples have a full-time/part-time situation. In these cases, the parents made the decisions based on what they believed would be best for their families – with children. It seems like the conversations getting the most attention these days are more geared around how the parents can “make it big” in their careers despite the demands of parenting.

Children should be a priority if you’re going to have them. Our conversations surrounding “having it all” and “doing it all” and “being whoever we want to be” should acknowledge that if we have decided to have children, we have decided to assume the role of Parent. We are not having an accessory to our lives. These are not mini frou-frou pets that we can toss in an oversized bag and cart around for adorable Instagram pictures when it makes us look like bona-fide stable individuals, but otherwise dump somewhere else and see them when our schedules permit. These are tiny humans who are picking up everything we do and say and filtering it according to whatever framework we have instilled in them. And they will one day be making similar decisions in their lives.

Unfortunately, the impression that Marche’s article and Sandberg’s book left me with, whether intended or not, was that it was better to make a financially lucrative decision or a professionally aggressive decision than it was to take a pay cut or go without or consider the impact in any other light than financial. Marche wrote it best: “Our new domestic arrangement, like the move that precipitated it, was shaped more by circumstance than by ideology.” He is referring to feminist thinking, but the underlying idea that work decisions are made based more on the realities of here-and-now opportunity and financial reward than on personal beliefs or even strong parenting philosophies seems to underlie the bulk of these types of conversations.

I’m not on a soap box because I think women shouldn’t “lean in” or that parents shouldn’t put their children in day care. I’m just appalled that these discussions seem to treat children as an incident to be managed – as though having them is merely supposed to be a tic on our resume of accomplishments in life and while we’re checking off other achievements we just need to find a place to put them or something to keep them occupied.

Including them as part of the discussion doesn’t mean asking their opinion on mom’s next professional move – though if they’re older that could be an interesting opportunity. It does mean that as the adults in these relationships we should realize that when we accept the title of Parent, whether we hold a professional title or not, we are assuming a significant responsibility that will come to bear on every decision that we make.

That’s it really. Lean to whatever direction you like. Put your children in daycare or not. Be home for dinner or not. But at the end of the day, make sure the decision is made with their best interests at heart. And sometimes that may mean sacrifice, or temporarily not having it all. If you’re not ready to add another person’s needs to your personal and professional decisions, don’t have kids. But please stop treating them like an appointment on the calendar or a restrictive force on career advancement when we have the work-life balance conversations.

And if you feel like you should wait a bit longer, the article “How Long Can a Woman Wait to Have a Baby?” was well-researched, well-written, and informative.

11 thoughts on “Think of the Children: Who’s Missing in Work-Life Balance Conversations

  1. It’s a tough balance for everyone. I identified most with the comment that we shouldn’t treat our children as accessories to our lives, and that their best interests should always be in the forefront of our decisions.
    Great post!

    1. That’s all I’m saying. There are so many ways for families to negotiate these decisions, and the public conversations seem to be skewed towards a less child-centric approach. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  2. Great post. When I decided to take time off to write, I sat down and discussed the decision with my sons, a teen and preteen at the time. Of course, they shrugged and didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but I think they appreciated being part of the process. Of course, one can’t do that with babies and toddlers, but your point of making sure to consider what’s best for the kids is a good one.

    1. I suspect a lot of parents have this conversation responsibly which is why I’ve been a bit irked to see it dismissed so casually. I like the opportunity and possible benefits of having that kind of conversation with older children – and, whether they know it or not, what a great way to include the men of the next generation in the conversation now – thank you!

      1. What?! Who told you that secret? 🙂 That makes it so much more satisfying if/when they do have children of their own and find the same words coming out of their mouths. “Aha! You were listening!” At least that’s what my mom has been saying from Day #1 of our first arrival and my first confession that I understand her as a parent a little better now. #humblepie

  3. Perhaps if people stopped equating pets with children, children would cease to be viewed as things that needed to be fed, watered, and kept from destroying the house…tangential to your argument, but the frou-frou dog being Instagramed made me think of it. Great post! 🙂

    1. Maybe that was a Freudian slip…hmmm, another post. Since the only pet we have right now is a fish I don’t feel as qualified to compare the care of pets with children (though I have my opinions), so thanks for adding that idea as a parent and a loving pet owner. 🙂

  4. This is a well-written and thoughtful post. As a teacher, I have witnessed parents who treat their children as a nuisance, parents who have no life outside of the children, and parents who do everything in their power to try to balance this thing called life in a favorable way for all family members. That last approach really commands my respect, given the demands of our society on adults and children alike.

    1. There are a lot of pieces pulling for attention and priority – I agree with you about respecting the parents who do their darndest to balance it all. I can only imagine the how many parent-child combinations you have come across as a teacher. I’d add “teachers” in the category of people I respect given the demands of our society!

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