Present Parenting: Beyond the Working/Stay-at-Home Debates

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There are huge rifts between working moms and stay-at-home moms. They form separate Facebook support groups. Real life groups have to go out of their way to say, “We welcome both working moms and stay-at-home moms.” There’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom to a group of working mothers, and there’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going back to work in a group of stay-at-home moms.

Not necessarily a judgmental silence. Just the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we don’t have as much in common as mothers, after all.

It’s an issue of priorities, we often think — working mothers put themselves and their careers first and let the kids fall where they may. Stay-at-home moms prioritize their children. And we can know this, we can judge a woman’s commitment to her children or to her job based on where a woman predominantly spends her day.

Which makes sense — except that there are many other factors to consider. There’s the matter of finances. Having the option to be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege the working class and single moms can’t afford. (And not all women are cut out to be home entrepreneurs or start their own sustainable gardens.)

Then there’s the issue of less tangible resources — physical, emotional, and mental. In past days, extended families lived closer together, allowing extended family to look after all the grandchildren and cousins running afoot. Now it’s not uncommon for women to raise their kids states or even countries away from extended family. Some moms are new to the community and without any friends to trade date night babysitting or even let off some steam. Many fathers can’t afford or aren’t offered paternity leave, which cuts off more physical, emotional, and mental resources available to frazzled moms. All of this often adds up to stay-at-home moms unable to take a break, catch a breath, or engage in any other meaningful work until their last child turns eighteen.

While stay-at-home moms might indeed prioritize physical presence with their children over working moms, the isolation and stress of raising kids alone might not allow them to prioritize emotional presence. And while working moms don’t have the edge on physical presence with their kids, meaningful work apart from raising their children might energize these mothers to invest more emotional presence.

That’s where we need to center this conversation — on emotional presence, on present parenting. This goes beyond whether to work outside the home or stay at home. This is about evaluating and maximizing our emotional resources — and surprise, surprise, it looks different for every family.

As a teacher who loves working with kids and has a lot of patience with them, spending most of my day at home makes sense for me. Financially, we can swing it. My husband is already involved in daily household upkeep and expects to shoulder a good share of parenting when he comes home from work too, so I know I’m not in the parenting business alone.

On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of how loneliness, sleeplessness, and lack of adult conversation affects me. I’m keeping a part-time job (just a couple hours) outside of the home, leaving my baby in my husband’s care. This will give me the change in environment, the human interaction, and the independence of earning some money and doing other meaningful work that I need to keep my energy up. I would go insane stuck at home all day with a baby — and that’s not good for me at all.

But equally important, that’s not good for my baby, either.

[A]dvocacy for the full humanity of women cannot happen apart from advocacy for children. — Joyce Anne Mercer

And that’s another huge topic involved in present parenting — not merely “what works best for mama’s sanity?” but “what do my children most need from me?” We cannot effectively maximize our emotional resources if we’re not sure how much or what kind of emotional resources are needed to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. 

I recently read Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Komisar introduced to me the idea of present parenting. Her thesis is that in the first three years, children particularly need their mothers. As a long-practicing psychotherapist, she links the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and other behavior problems to the lack of present mothering in the first three years.

It was a hard and challenging read, even as a woman who knew from the start that I wanted to be my children’s primary caretaker. It was hard and challenging because as a feminist, I want to support all women’s choices. I didn’t want to hear another reason why women have to be stuck at home and pretend to be happy about it. I want to believe that all women’s choices positively affect their children.

But Komisar’s challenge isn’t, at its heart, a call for moms to quit their jobs and stay home until their babies turn three. She recognizes everything I noted above — the financial and emotional factors that require women to work, the reality of a workforce that penalizes mothers for taking maternity leave and quitting their job for even a few years.

All mothers can be present mothers, regardless of whether they work outside the home or stay home with their children. All mothers can prioritize their children’s needs, regardless of financial constraints. But mothers cannot be blind to the reality of their children’s needs, which often don’t fit conveniently with what we need or want. And children under three need a large amount of their mother’s emotional presence, in both quantity and quality — meaning mothers of young children must rearrange their priorities for a few years to match this reality.

In other words, mothers should maximize their emotional presence in accordance with their children’s developmental needs, not merely with their own needs. Again, this looks different for every woman, as a woman’s own financial or emotional needs factors into how well she can maximize her emotional presence.

This idea of present parenting doesn’t just challenge women regarding how much time they spend working or where they spend the majority of their day. A discussion on present parenting might prove an effective guide on how many children to have or when to have children — or whether to have children at all. Hey, quiverfull movement — can a mother really be emotionally present for a large number of kids in quick succession? Are advocates of large families blind to the reality of how badly children need their mother’s emotional presence and the reality that the more children you have, the fewer emotional resources you have? Maybe, maybe not!

Present parenting also gets our husbands involved in the question of work/life balance. These aren’t just women’s issues. Many dads get sucked into their work life, thinking that buying that extra car or just putting food on the table (only in a monetary sense, of course) is needed to support their families. And some feel guilty for wanting to be their children’s primary caretaker. But this simply isn’t true — his children require his emotional presence just as much as Mom’s. Where are his priorities? How can he rearrange his career goals to be more emotionally available to his family?

Both father and mother must look at their children’s emotional needs and their own ability to meet those needs in order to prioritize the right things at the right time. This often requires creativity beyond “Dad is the breadwinner, Mom is the caretaker.”

And then it goes even further beyond individual families to our communities. Our culture doesn’t prioritize present parenting; it prioritizes the materialism of the American dream. We don’t value children’s needs, as evidenced by our largely ineffective schools and daycares and the subquality pay teachers and caretakers receive. Most of us who want to spend more time with our families simply cannot, because we’re expected to be on call on the job, put in overtime, take shorter maternity leave or let vacation days stack up unused, all to show we’re valuable workers. Our financial security depends on our workaholicism.

All of us — moms and dads and childless folks alike — suffer from a devaluation of emotional presence, whether that’s investing in our kids or in our friendships or in our marriages or in our mental health.

So, mamas, let’s lead a cultural revolution. Let’s stop talking about whether we’re going to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, and start talking about how we plan on being emotionally present for our children, our families, and ourselves.

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

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11 thoughts on “Present Parenting: Beyond the Working/Stay-at-Home Debates

  1. maygrrl

    Good thoughts, Bailey. And I would add that as you wrestle with pretty much everything in parenting, from work choices to discipline to education and everything in between, realize that it’s okay to change and shift as your child does. (And it’s okay to make different decisions for different kids (actually, that should be an assumption!). The way this worked in my own life was staying at home during the baby years because 1) I had the financial luxury of making that choice and 2) I had a toddler and twins who were crappy sleepers (and nursing) and there was no way that I could function in a job with so little sleep at night (yay naptime for everyone!). But when my little guy was a couple of years old, it was clear that I was dying inside without a way to use some of my gifts and skills. So I went back to work.

    Have you ever read/heard What My Mother Taught Me by Shauna Niequist? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIzgyW95grc It was the empowerment I needed to go back to work and know it was okay exactly because I realized that I could be more emotionally present with some physical distance from my kids. It’s a beautiful listen and I send it to lots of my mom friends when they are wrestling with permission to do the things that give them life.

    -Dalaina

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    • Bailey Steger

      Such an excellent point! I’m a more rigid planner by nature (I literally have my child’s homeschool curriculum mapped out until fifth grade, for instance…), and I keep telling myself that F-L-E-X-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y is needed. I have no idea what motherhood will be like for me or who my little guy will be, so being willing to adjust to my kid’s and my needs as we go is something I’ll need to learn.

      I haven’t read anything by Shauna Niequist, but it sounds amazing! I love how you described your work as something that gives you life.

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  2. Steph E

    Hey! So I’m interested, so I know there’s a lot of research on responsive/present parenting based on the mom-child relationship, I was wondering if you know- is that relationship always focused on because it really needs to be the mom? Or if you are splitting mom&dad caretaking, is that just as good for the child (or, do people just not know, because there aren’t really studies done on that?) David & I are pretty committed to trying to share childcare as much as possible in the early years, because we think it will be good for both of our sanity, and we also think it’s good for our kid! But I’ve read a lot of responsive parenting stuff that just talks about moms.

    So, there’s this book that was really meaningful to my mom called, “A mother’s heart” by Jean Fleming, when she was a new Christian mom, trying to figure everything out. And what was interesting reading it is that SO SO much of the content I thought was great, even though it was written ages ago! Like being emotionally present for your kids, thinking intentionally about them and treating them all as individuals etc. But then I felt like the book was kind of ruined for me because there was this huge assumption that a. you can only be emotionally present/good mother if you are at home with your kids 100% of the time and b. yeah, dad can take the kids on little play dates but most of this parenting thing is up to you. (there was also some other outdated stuff I had a bit of issues with… but taken in context for when it was written, I was surprised at how much I agreed with!) I was just wondering, are there any parenting books/blogs that talk about how to be a present parent and don’t make the assumption of a stay at home mom? Are there any parenting books you know of that include dads??

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    • Bailey Steger

      So in my *vast* amount of research (e.g., just reading “Being There”), I think the conventional wisdom is merely that a child needs to form secure attachments from birth to age 3. Erica looks at the data and says that it’s critical the secure attachment be to the mother primarily, and I’m pretty sure she acknowledges that this is different from what parents are usually taught. So she would argue that mom should be the primary caretaker until after 3, and that moms and dads aren’t as interchangeable as researchers say.

      But she did also mention that there wasn’t a lot of research on dads as caretakers, at least not on the effects caretaking has on men. One of the reasons mothers are preferable to dads has to do with hormonal makeup, which makes most women responsive in ways most men aren’t (like mirroring facial expressions and empathizing with emotions rather than brushing them off and telling kids to buck up). But she also said men can learn these responsive skills and that there are preliminary studies suggesting the caretaking actually changes the hormonal makeup of men to be more like mothers’. Bottom line, she said, if parents are splitting caretaking roles, both need to be on board with the same level and kind of responsiveness so the baby is secure.

      “Being There” is the only parenting book I’ve read that doesn’t assume you have to be a stay-at-home mom and gives instructions for how to include dad. I haven’t read any other books about responsive parenting, but I am totally looking for the same sort of books as you, so let me know if you find any!!! It’s so frustrating in particular that there aren’t a lot of books and blogs, at least that I know of, that incorporate dads equally. Erich is not a babysitter; he’s a dad, and I wish there was more research and advice on how to actually co-parent instead of mom delegating everything. :/

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  3. villemezbrown

    I love this post and the comments on it. I was not familiar with the term “responsive parenting”. When my daughter was young the approach that seems similar to me was “attachment parenting”. The idea being that it is essential that children form a strong attachment to the primary caregiver in the first three years and how to go about making sure that happens. The focus here too was that most of the time the “primary caregiver” was assumed to be the mother. As a feminist and a working mom, here is my take on that.
    Breastfeeding is best. We all know that, but it is generally considered not compassionate or not politically correct or something else bad to say so quite that bluntly. OK – so I know that breastfeeding is not possible in all cases and yes your child will be just fine being fed from a bottle. With that said, breastfeeding is really really important and no discussion of the first years of a child’s life can ignore that. Only women can breastfeed. There is pretty much no getting around that. But beyond that, I think either the mother or the father could be the best suited to be primary caregiver.
    My husband and I knew we wanted our child to have a stay-at-home parent at least for the early years. We also knew that I am career-driven and particularly poorly suited to running a household whereas my husband is excellent at it. So, it seemed obvious to us that he would stay at home and I would work outside the home. I did take a full three months maternity leave. I think this is necessary to get nursing established. After that I worked full-time but my priority continued to be my child and that continues to this day. I found this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1107781.Nursing_Mother_Working_Mother?from_search=true very good, not just for how to keep nursing after returning to work, but how to return to work and still keep being a mother your top priority. It may seem that I am too focused on breastfeeding, but it does help both the mother and the baby establish, keep, and strengthen their bond such that whether the mom stays home or not seems to make less difference. Even long after weaning, for me at least, it set my course the way I wanted it to be – I am a mother first and a computer programmer second (well, third probably, I’m a wife second) – and with that mindset I was always able to keep being a computer programmer without guilt and without losing my attachment to my child.
    The other side of this coin is that most of the day to day care-giving of my daughter was done by my husband. I like a lot of Dr. Sears books on attachment parenting and he certainly considers the father to have an extremely important role to play, but even he gives the edge to the mom in the early years. I believe that without regard to any tendencies based on gender differences or talk about nurturing or whatever, the basic biological processes of being pregnant, giving birth, and breastfeeding put a biological mother in a slightly different position than a biological father. Of course with adoptive parents even this limited difference does not exist, and in either case, whatever difference there may be shouldn’t have impact on decisions about who is the primary caregiver. The baby needs to feel loved and secure in the knowledge that her needs will be met. I don’t think it makes any difference whether it is the mother or the father who is doing that for the larger portion of time.
    Adele

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    • Bailey Steger

      I hope everybody ends up reading your comment, because this is exactly the attitude I’m talking about! Even though I’m choosing to be the primary caretaker while you went back to work, I feel like we share the exact same priorities and parenting philosophies when it comes to motherhood. The stay-at-home/working mom dichotomy is totally moot in this case. And it’s inspiring to see how you prioritized motherhood and breastfeeding while still working full-time.

      Anyways, I loved reading your thoughts, and I’m putting your book recommendations on my reading list!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ArieltheHuman

    This is really great. My husband talks a lot about “quality vs quantity” in parenting (particularly in his argument for public schooling over homeschooling, that’s not decided between us yet ;)). I was homeschooled and loved it, but I am understand that raising my child and being a present, supportive parent does not necessarily mean I need to be with them 24/7. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Bailey Steger

      Ohhhh my goodness, we have these homeschool/public school discussions too!!! I think the ideal (for me) is always a large quantity of quality parenting — having plenty of time but also having the mindset of being intentional with that large amount of time instead of assuming that quantity = quality. For instance, I loved that I was able to come to my mom any time of the day to talk (something that wouldn’t be available to me if our quality time was limited to when she got home from work), but her physical availability would mean little if she hadn’t intentionally set aside what she was doing and focused on what I was saying.

      I haven’t seen present, responsive parenting modeled in working parents before (just because everyone I know is a stay-at-home mom and I’m not close to a lot of fathers), so that’s part of the problem for me. I just don’t know how to be present and supportive unless I’m there 24/7! :P

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