Friday, July 21, 2006

Dismaying Story #11: Mom's Bonding Time

Dear Andrew,

My wife and I both work full-time so our two girls go to daycare after school. My wife feels badly about being away from them while she's working. It's gotten to the point where she wants me to leave the three of them alone for an hour or more each evening. She says the bond between mothers and their children is special and she needs time with the girls when they can focus on her. To me, though, it feels like I'm being squeezed out of my own family. Which one of us is right?

Signed, Displaced Father

Dear Displaced,

Mother's guilt is a common issue, especially today when so many families include two working parents. In Dismaying Story #2: The Breadwinner Wars I discuss how this type of family has become the norm rather than the exception. Having dual earners can place a number of stresses on the family. Yours is obviously going through its share.

I can sympathize with your wife's intense desire to spend as much time as possible with her children. Mother Nature seems to have decided that women will be the ones to yearn most strongly to have babies in their lives and to carry that maternal instinct with them throughout their lifetimes. Your wife clearly feels this need and is searching for the best way to fulfill it in your particular life circumstances. You and your children are very fortunate to have such a loving, caring and attentive mother in the family.

I have reservations, though, about her strategy of excluding you from family time on a regular basis. She seems to be focusing on her own personal needs and on the bond between herself and your children. While these are certainly important, there are other considerations in maintaining the emotional well-being of your four-person family. My reservations include the following:
  • Children can be very good at figuring out what's going on. They will soon realize Dad isn't around because Mom prefers it that way. A child's mind may conclude:
    • "Mom doesn't love Dad anymore and it's probably my fault. I must be a bad girl."
    • "Mom thinks it's a bad thing for Dad to be around us, so Dad must be a bad person."
    • "I like being with both Mom and Dad. Mom is mean because she won't let us see Dad. I'm angry with her." This the exact opposite of what your wife is trying to achieve.
  • Children seem to have an infinite capacity to love. Nothing in my experience indicates children bond any more closely with Mom when she has them alone compared with when she interacts with them in a larger group. Bonding happens as you share positive experiences together. When the kids enjoy having both Mom and Dad around, they are fully engaged in developing closeness with both parents. The affection they feel for one parent is not diluted because the other parent is present.
  • Given today's hectic lifestyle, I suspect it is inevitable that you and your wife will each naturally end up alone with the children at various times. This seems easier and less forced than trying to manufacture these opportunities artificially.
  • Your question makes it clear you feel badly about this situation. Regardless of how supportive or easygoing you are, this has to put a strain on the relationship between you and your wife.
  • Your daughters might decide you are choosing to exclude yourself from this family time. Children often draw conclusions that place themselves at the heart of the issue: "Daddy doesn't want to be with me. I am not important to him." Or: "I must have been a bad girl." This can be hard on a child's self-esteem.
While I understand your wife's motives, it seems dangerous to impose rules that limit when you are permitted to be with your children. This has the potential to cause several problems and doesn't seem to address the issues she is most concerned about.

Perhaps the two of you could come up with some creative solutions to help her feel better. Here are a few ideas you might consider:
  • Since the girls are in school, the primary times she is concerned about are late in the afternoon and summer vacation. Is it a viable option for your wife to work part-time while the children are young so she can spend at least some of this time with them?
  • Does housework consume much of her time and energy while she is off work? If so, perhaps you might consider stepping up to more of this responsibility. This would be a gift from you to her, freeing her up to be with the children more. Alternatively, if you can afford it, you might consider hiring a cleaner to come in once in a while. Think about having simpler meals so preparation and cleanup time is minimized.
  • Perhaps there are activities that cut into the time the two of you can spend with the children, such as cooking, cleaning or shopping. You might consider including the girls and turning these into family activities. Sure, it can be more challenging to bake a casserole or buy groceries while young children "help", but having the time together might be worth the effort. This is especially true if you go into it with the attitude that you will relax, take a bit more time and try to pay as much attention as possible to the kids.
Above all, I urge you and your wife to approach these types of decisions with love and understanding for each other. Remember you are both stressed and in need of support. Hopefully you will come up with a balance that makes life more enjoyable for everyone involved.


How do you balance the home versus work issues in your family? Send in your story by email today or enter a comment using the link below.

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