Tuesday, April 4, 2006
In my experience, the first time the question about work comes up is when a child is between age 4 and 6,. She doesn't want you to go, and so she asks, "Mommy, do you have to go to work?"
As a working mom, we secretly hope we won't ever have to answer that question. As unrealistic as it may sound, we hope maybe our kids won't even notice. We work through lunch so we can attend class parties, take days off to join field trips, stay up until the wee hours to bake cookies for the class event we can't attend but still want to participate in. The latter is especially true when our young child asks, "What are you going to do for the ______ party?" Any frazzled working mother knows the "fill in the blank" can include every holiday from Valentine's Day to Christmas and the obscure curriculum-based events such as colonial days, math fests or publishing parties, which often require food and activities tied to the theme. These are events where mere cupcakes will not suffice and where it's not unusual to find crazy-eyed mothers scouring the bins at Michael's craft store, minutes before closing, to find just the right plastic pilgrim's hats to adorn said cupcakes.
As working moms, we do all of this because we don't want our kids to be affected by our jobs. This is hardest to manage with a first child when we desperately want to do everything "right" and working doesn't feel like an example of one of those things we're doing right as a mother.
So, we do it all and stretch ourselves so thin we're like overused rubber bands, bending too easily to the needs of our jobs and the wants of our children in the hope we can excel at both.
But, no matter how involved we are in our children's lives, in and out of the classroom, after school and on the weekends, we are still working moms and we can only do so much. When our child asks if we can pick her up after school, and we say "no" because we have to work, the relationship between mother, child and job is defined by our answer.
Then, the question becomes, "Can we be OK with that relationship and how can we leverage our children's questions into an opportunity for learning about responsibility, understanding and patience?"
It took me awhile to find that balance with my first child. I spent too much time worrying about the effect of my work on her psyche instead of recognizing that every day I was showing her a positive role model for how a working mother can effectively do both of her jobs.
By the time my youngest begins asking me questions about work, which will happen sometime in the next four years, I won't be hoping she doesn't notice that I have a job outside of the home. I'll be anticipating the questions and I'll be eager to share with her why I love my job, what I get out of it personally and what we get out of it as a family. I'll explain how it both provides opportunity and, yes, sometimes limits opportunity; but that is true with any choice, where a sacrifice is made for what we choose not to do.
My older kids now know my job may limit spontaneity but it doesn't negate opportunity. If they plan ahead, I can meet them at school for lunch, I can volunteer for special activities that are important to them and sometimes I can take them home from school. I can be there for them and I can meet the needs of my job. Realizing I can't do it all but I can do both my jobs well is a life lesson we're all benefiting from.
This topic is particularly pertinent this month as parents across the country will blend their work and family life, exposing kids to their jobs as part of Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day. Created in 2003 by the Ms. Foundation for Women, the day is designed to expand opportunities for girls and boys, expose them to what adults do during the work day, and broaden the discussion about the competing challenges of work and family. Both girls and boys can be encouraged to reach their full potential, whether it is in the home, workplace, or community.
According to the foundation, girls and boys want and envision a future in which they can be involved in all parts of their lives. In a study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, 90 percent of students who said they plan to have a job, also plan to have children. What's more is that 81 percent of those girls and almost 60 percent of boys said they will reduce their work hours when they have children. Based on the input from young people, the researchers had specific suggestions for working parents to help their children succeed in the working world. Parents should be more intentional about sharing their work lives with children in ways that help them learn constructive lessons about the world of work and to help their children think about their expectations about managing work and family life.
These conversations could do more to prepare our children for real-life work experiences than anything they can learn in the classroom. This year, the national date for Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day is Thursday, April 27. Whether you participate formally or not, why not use that day to talk to your child about why you work, what you enjoy and what challenges you face as a working mother? Your experience balancing work and family will give your child insight they can't get anywhere else.