Parenting and Professionalism:
The Myth of Having It All
Robin B. Thomas, Ph.D., R.N.
Individual and Family Therapist, Seattle, Washington
Edited from the , December 1990
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Saying no to a professional challenge was a skill I lost in graduate school and one that I am with difficulty regaining. Until the fall of 1989, my most formidable coping strategy, denial, was firmly in place. I wanted to retain the roles I had fulfilled before I had children. Although I spoke of making choices between career and parenting, I believed at that time that I really didn't have to sacrifice either. I believed I could work half time, parent my children, be a part of the preschool car pool, bake for school parties, be a good partner to my husband, and continue the level of research, teaching, consultation and publication that I engaged in B.C. (before children). Clearly, that is not a logical or realistic perspective, yet I would guess that many of the women reading this continue to pursue equally insane lifestyles. Those of you who are partners to professional women have probably seen it in the women you love.
Still, I think it was easier for me to pursue all my goals than to admit that I had to give up something. It took time, frustration, and a second child to help me realize that choices must be made. I wanted to believe that I could have it all—family, career and time to myself. In a sense, I achieved these goals. I have it all. Two wonderful little girls, a caring partner for a husband, and a stimulating and demanding career. It is not the life I planned for or the career I was "groomed" for before I became a parent. I have had to put my career on hold, at least for now. I think often of the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it."
In the process of writing this article and talking extensively with my friends and colleagues, several themes concerning parenting and professionalism became clear (at least my qualitative research skills remain active). These issues serve as a frame for my relating the challenges I faced in adapting to parenthood. The themes include Paradigm, Painful Choices, Balance, and Consequences. The challenge of adapting to parenthood does not affect only parents. Our professions and institutions need to become more supportive of the transition to, and the experience of, parenthood among professionals.
Every person holds a unique view of the world, his or her paradigm. It determines how individuals perceive events, what they think about their experiences, and how they respond to family and social demands. While I share some feelings about parenting with other women, my models for parenting also differ in many ways from theirs. Each woman has a model for parenting, and this model shapes her decisions about parenting and professionalism. Several conflicting social and educational forces influenced my parenting paradigm. The first was the climate of the 1950's and early 1960's, in which a mother's primary role was as homemaker. Ozzie and Harriet served as role models for parents and their children. A contradictory force shaping my paradigm came from my mother, who lived the 1950's style but wanted something else for her daughters. She had been left a widow with young children and virtually no work skills. The message was "Be prepared to do it all". This message was not uncommon for young women of my generation, who enrolled in schools of education, nursing and social work, preparing for careers in the "helping professions" that could, we thought, be combined easily with family life.
Another major influence shaping my world view was the blossoming of the women's movement as I grew into young womanhood. The woman's movement told us we could "have it all", a career and a family, if only we wanted it badly enough. Remember Helen Reddy's recording of the song "I Am Woman", and the commercial showing a beautiful, energetic woman singing about her ability to "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and still remind my husband that he's a man"? (How did she do it?).
The fourth major influence on my parenting model was years of education in the field of mother-infant interaction and the family system. Researchers have now documented and explained some of the magic that transpires between parent and child. But it is not research findings, quite honestly, that are involved in my inability to tolerate the thought of another person fulfilling that role with my children. I know that from the child's perspective others can offer her the foundation on which to build a strong self-esteem. It is my issue that I want to be the person who, for better or worse, provides the feedback my babies need to grow and develop. I don't see this as an issue of being a good or bad parent; rather it involves awareness of my needs and desires to be physically present in my children's daily lives. I have had remarkable good fortune in finding a child care provider who is a true partner in my children's care. But despite my professional awareness of the importance of the children's attachment to their caregiver, it took some time before I could observe the love between our nanny and my girls without a twinge of sadness, or perhaps jealousy.
These experiences and others contributed to my paradigm as I entered the world of parenting. I thought I could, and should, do, and have, it all. As a result, I spent three years trying to keep advancing my career while being an almost full-time mother. Actually, I did fairly well at the game when I had one young child. My first daughter, Katie, accompanied me on monthly trips for presentations, conferences or consultations. There came a time, however, when I decided that the cost of "having it all" was too high.
I found it interesting, as I struggled to "fit" my professional and parenting goals together, that I no longer "fit" the paradigm of my nursing discipline, at least the way it is expressed in academics. An example of the emphasis on producing that conflicts with helping our professionals care for themselves and their families stems from a discussion I had with a senior faculty member about my struggle to continue to contribute to our university while putting my family first. We were talking about finding time to publish the results of my research. This compassionate mother of one suggested that the solution to my problem was to "find the 5 a.m. time". She explained that by getting up at 5 a.m. I could get several hours of writing time in before heading to work for the day. Obviously, this caring woman failed to realize that I am incapable of thinking at 5 a.m., and that my young children were often awake by 5 or 6 a.m., ready for play time. I know my colleague meant well, yet her response to my struggle was essentially for me to work longer hours. It is one answer, and that is how some colleagues in my, and other disciplines, handle their need to blend career and parenting. There are other ways to help individuals continue to contribute to their field. We need to develop new approaches to people, especially women, to contribute more at some times in their careers and less at other times, when family demands are greatest. When we set up an either/or situation, we lose the potential these people could contribute.
I guess I'm a slow learner. One colleague has gone as far as telling me that I am stubborn. I prefer to value what I call my persistence, as a tool that facilitated my completion of doctoral study and continues to support my roles as mother, wife, friend and professional. I will admit that I strongly resisted (stubbornly?) the knowledge that I needed to give up some goals in order to accomplish my major objectives for parenting.
At this point I began to experience the strain and conflict between parenting and professionalism as inevitable. I had avoided a number of professional commitments—leadership on major grants, a tenure track position—that I knew would be too demanding at this point in my family life. I had made more than one attempt to carve out a meaningful, but manageable, professional niche. Yet there always turned out to be more than I bargained for. I decided at that time to leave the university setting entirely. Instead, I am in private practice as an individual and family therapist and continue to consult in the areas of family assessment and family centered care. It is interesting that many colleagues do not accept that my career choices were based on my desire to be present for my children, which I found to be incompatible with an academic career. I see my life as sequential now, with a time for career now followed by reduced contributions to my field while I parent young children. I know a time will come when I can again offer a great deal of energy to the academic side of my discipline. I hope there are opportunities to do so at that time.
When I think of balance I remember the graceful tightrope walker in the circus as she effortlessly performed astounding feats of daring and skill. That performance requires training, constant concentration and courage. It is not unlike balancing parenting and a professional career. I feel like a novice tightrope walker, consciously attending to the small movements that help maintain my balance. I am in a constant state of adaptation to the many demands of family, career and social obligations. Perhaps attaining a balance will become easier over time as I complete my tightrope walker training. My friends who are home full-time tell me they envy me my opportunity to work. My full-time working friends envy my parenting time. In truth, the life I have chosen of part-time career and almost full-time mother holds the best and worst of both worlds.
I bake cookies with my children and attend all preschool events. We go to parks and have friends over to play. Several times each week I pile three little girls into my car for the giggling ride to preschool. We have a garden where we grow potatoes, squash and flowers. Tomorrow, I will help herd twelve preschoolers into a muddy pumpkin patch to find their ideal jack-o-lantern. On alternate days I frantically write promised articles, prepare presentations or see clients in my growing practice. When not engaged in these activities I shop for groceries, children's clothes, household necessities, diapers or birthday presents. Somehow it doesn't feel balanced. I have two careers, mother and professional, both valued, satisfying and demanding.
The result of this struggle is that our family is well, happy and healthy. The strain of my "having it all" cost us a lot in the past. Now, I have exciting career that I control, and am able to spend a good deal of time with my children and husband. With all my strengths and flaws, I am the major influence in my children's lives. It is not a stress-free lifestyle. There are still conflicting pulls of parenthood and professionalism, but they are fewer, now that I own my business. I continue to search for a peer group, and have found some women who are also blending family and career. I am learning to fit into the world of full-time mothers, and find it a more complex world than I expected. I am also physically healthier than I have been in years and don't have to constantly monitor my diet.
The losses I feel are the companionship of my colleagues and the adrenaline of presentations and teaching. I was unaware of the meaning my academic career held for me. Perhaps that was naive, or once again evidence of my denial. I underestimated my response to the loss of invitations to speak at conferences or to participate in expert panels. Luckily, I am human, and humans adapt fairly well. In short, I am getting used to my new lifestyle and do not for one minute want to change the past or my choices. This is obviously not the solution for all professional women as they transition to parenthood. It is only one approach to coping with two deeply held drives, the desire to be the best parent I can be to my own young children while continuing to contribute professionally to the well-being of many infants, toddlers and their families.