Whose Needs Come First?

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Over the last thirty years we have seen unprecedented changes in the family. Then, most children were raised with both biological parents; today that’s a quaint memory. Most children came home from school knowing Mom would be there, while today most are greeted by the television or a baby-sitter. We’re not supposed to mention these changes, because if we do we’re blaming the mother. And we’ve been told, again and again, that “if the mother’s happy, the child’s happy.” That’s supposed to end all debate.

But what if that’s not true? Studies have started to put cracks in that theory, and these cracks are quickly becoming chasms.

I am not saying we need to return to Leave it to Beaver days. I don’t think the 1950s were actually that idyllic. Women weren’t supposed to pursue any interest outside of figuring out the best turtle wax to use on your coffee table (you do use turtle wax on tables, don’t you?). My grandmother was brilliant, vibrant, and unable to use most of her gifts because she was a woman. Life was stifling.

But I sure don’t think today is perfect, either. We have traded in stifling for chaotic. Everybody goes their own separate ways, but the wife still tends to be the main orgnanizing force behind housework, doctor’s appointments, birthday parties, and even who’s grounded for what. It’s draining.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the family looked very different. Most families worked altogether, either on farms or in their own stores. Children helped out as soon as was feasible. Everybody may have had their own chores, but the family was working together towards the same goal. Then people figured out that a factory job may be a safer way to ensure the family ate next winter, so men fled farms for factories. Women lasted for over a century before they started to leave in large numbers, too. So when people think I’m blaming women for leaving the home, I always say that men left first. But that doesn’t mean the current scenario with everybody working their pants off while kids are left alone much of the time is the right one, either.

What I would like to see is a society in which we weren’t constantly at odds to see whose needs were going to be met. Instead of saying, “I need to do what’s best for me,” I wish more parents could ask, “what is best for our children”? And maybe, if we do that, we can come up with some creative solutions. Can we start our own business to work together at home, as more and more couples are doing? Can we each work part-time, or three-quarter time, so someone is usually home? Can we buy smaller televisions, fewer cars, and smaller houses so one parent can stay at home completely? Can we decide to invest money in marriage counselling now, rather than letting the relationship drift apart?

Whenever you even bring up these points, though, some people get awfully defensive. Many women, for instance, have a lot invested in the proposition that “anything men can do, women can do better”. If family holds women back, then family has to take a back seat. It’s not fair if men get to have careers and women don’t. I think “fair”, though, is an odd word to use in regards to family. Fair is dividing cookies between two warring toddlers; it shouldn’t be about who gets to spend the most time away from them. Besides, why are we making this into a man-woman fight? Kids need both of us, and do best when we can each spend as much time as possible at home just hanging out, so we have time to talk. When we make career decisions based on what’s best for the family, and not just ourselves, everybody wins, because family relationships are the most precious we have.

Nevertheless, the value of these relationships has often been downplayed as we raise each generation since the 1970s to focus primarily on career. I think this is a mistake that kids are noticing. Through temper tantrums, crying, defiance, self-mutilation, sexual promiscuity, and drug use, they’re trying to be heard. They don’t necessarily like all these changes, and for everybody’s sake we have to talk about this—even if it makes some people squirm.

S. Wray Gregoire
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