Sunday, April 21, 2013

Working parents: Some unintended consequences

The following post is written for those working parents who have the option of having one parent stay home with their children.  There are, however, countless parents who do not enjoy this luxury. Due to financial necessity, there are many households where both parents need to work in order to pay the bills. Yet, there is a real temptation nowadays to define luxuries as “needs” in order to justify two incomes. Whether or not married couples have to finance real or perceived needs, there are unintended consequences of having both parents work full time. Theses consequences, unfortunately, escape most people because they unfold years later.

First, let’s take a look at a trend among today’s parents: In March of 2013 Kim Parker and Wendy from Pew Research wrote an article titled, “Modern Parenthood.” It was based on a study of working parents which shows that there is a trend which favors the office over being at home with the kids. For instance, Pew Research found that in just five years mothers who wanted to work full time have increased by 17 percent. “Among mothers with children under age 18, the share saying they would prefer to work full time has increased from 20% in 2007 to 32% in 2012.”

Even among fathers, the ideal of having a parent stay at home with the children is on the wane. “In 2009,” for instance, “54% of fathers with children under age 17 said the ideal situation for young children was to have a mother who did not work at all outside the home; today only 37% of fathers say that—a drop of 17 percentage points.”

Although the preference for a mother to stay home with the children is on the decline among both mothers and fathers, the difficulty of having both parents work is inescapable. Again, Pew Research found that “56% of mothers and 50% of fathers say juggling work and family life is difficult for them.” This reminded me of Dr. John Gray, author of book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He once cited a study that shows that working-married women, more than ever before, are unhappy. Indeed, when the demands of the children greet them upon returning home from a long day at work, their stress is only intensified. This affects the working mother in a peculiar way because, according to Dr. Gray, they are more wired to fulfill the needs of the family. Fathers, on the other hand, are more inclined to fulfill his own needs before they get around to meeting their children’s needs. In other words, a man’s self-preservation skills are better because he is less empathetic to the needs of others.

Be that as it may, what escapes most working parents- especially those who have little time for their children –are the unintended consequences which unfold years after the childhood years. Invariably, when children are young, there needs are many. With this, the sacrifices required of parents are many. This is why the assertion can be made that being a stay-at-home mom (or dad) is the hardest job in the world. Unlike the office, a house of children is an uncontrolled environment.  

All of this is to say that the temperament, the behaviors and the needs of children are much more unpredictable than what we find in a work environment. In many cases, there is a predictable routine at work. Employees are incentivized to listen and cooperate with their supervisors. If they do not, they compromise their employment status. But stay-at-home moms enjoy no such perks. What is more, raising children full time is a thankless job. There are no promotions, no raises and no paid-leave. And to add insult to injury, the reward and the fruits of investing time with their children are not immediately felt. That comes much later. But the fall out of absentee parenting comes much later too. And for this reason, the dots between childhood upbringing and their behavior in the adulthood years are rarely connected.

In a 2006 study in Great Britain, the average time working parents spent with their children was 19 minutes. When a child grows up without seeing their parents throughout most of the day, they get accustomed to it. Sure, they’ll cry in those earlier years when mommy or daddy drives away from the daycare center. But eventually, they learn to cope with their parent’s absence. Soon enough, not being around mommy and daddy feels normal. And what feels normal as a child continues to feel normal when they reach adulthood.

However, as children get older and become less of a sacrifice, it often happens that parents want to spend more time around them. The parent-child relationship in the later years is, after all, more rewarding, more reciprocal and less demanding. And what is more, parents in their older age begin to see that those to whom they can rely on the most for help are their children; their own flesh and blood. It gradually dawns on them a closer relationship with their children is not just desirable, but it is a matter of necessity. But sadly, their children- now adults -are still used to what is normal. They have been trained to adapt to a life that did not involve a lot of time with their parents. Hence, just as their parents are reaching out to them more and more- in an attempt to make up for lost time -they find it exceedingly difficult to reciprocate. Too often, I am afraid, they don’t.

I used to work part time for a senior care service. What I found was that many senior citizens (either in nursing homes or living in their own homes) did not have a lot family members visiting them. And in many cases, the elderly were placed in nursing homes because their children were just too busy to take care of them. I often wondered if the generation of parents who put their children in daycare out of convenience were now being put in nursing homes for the same reason. What goes around, comes around.

Allow me to conclude on a personal note: My wife was given the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom for several years before our family needed her to work. When that time came there were a few years when we had to rely on daycare services for two of our children. It was a less-than-ideal situation. But the circumstances warranted a second income. We needed the money to keep our older kids in Catholic schools; which was a top priority for us. Still, even given the situation we were in, we knew that having one of us stay at home during the day with our kids was the ideal. However, we did our best to better the situation and accepted the results as God’s will. When the ideal could not be realized due to circumstances beyond our control, we learned that Divine Providence made up for what was lacking. Indeed, when plan A was out of reach, we believed that the Lord could do his work through plan B.

Unfortunately, parents are losing sight of the ideal. They are opting for plan B over plan A. But for those increasing number of parents who prefer to spend more time at the office rather than at home with their children- for those parents who believe this is the ideal –they should know what they are preparing their children for. There may come a time when they, in their time of need, will much rather be cared for by their own children in the warmth of a home than by paid staff at some nursing home. To be sure, nursing homes serve a noble purpose. Quite often, they do good work. But rarely do senior citizens want to live there as their first choice; especially when their children have the capability to care for them.

In any event, it must always be borne in mind that the apple never falls far from the tree.  For some in their old age, this is a consolation. Yet, for others, it is a cause for concern.

The 1974 song by Harry Chapman could not have driven this point home any better. It was a song ahead of its time. Please take time to read it. It may spare many of us from future heartache:  Cat's in the Cradle lyrics