By Betsy Liotus
Schaumburg IL USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 14 No. 4, July-August 1997, pp. 100-104
We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time
It was 1991; my children were eight and eleven years old and after more than a decade of full-time, at-home mothering, I made plans to work outside the home. While finances were a factor, I wrestled more with matters of the heart than anything money could or couldn't buy. I was busy at home, but restless; content, but confused.
As has often been said, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Enter Arlene Rossen Cardozo, author of Sequencing, a book which offered a much-needed reminder that putting my children first did not mean putting myself last. At the same time, Cardozo affirmed my goal to eventually make full-time employment part of my life. Inspired by the book, my confidence returned. Blessed with the luxury of a choice, I chose college over career, receiving my bachelor's degree in 1995, one year after accepting a part-time position at LLLI headquarters.
Having It All, But Not All at Once
What is sequencing? Cardozo first coined the term in 1986. At that time, she described it as "breaking the Superwoman mold to combine the best of modern feminism with the best of traditional mothering." But Cardozo, also author of Women At Home, limited the concept of sequencing to those women who first have a full-time career, next devote their energies to full-time childrearing, and then carefully and purposefully reintegrate paid work back into their lives.
While many women sequence this way, others move from from one stage at home to another. Some women devote time to volunteer work in schools or other organizations. Combinations also exist, including temporary work as well as working from home or in a family business. There's no one-size-fits-all recipe. A strategy often associated with weaning "gradually, with love," can help when contemplating a move to work. I believe that sequencing is also easier with three kinds of "knowing" firmly in place: know yourself, know your partner, and know your children.
Who are you? You might answer with titles such as mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, La Leche League Leader, or member. Or you might say, "I'm an Italian," "I'm a musician," or "I'm a teacher." But are you an introvert or an extrovert, a thinker or a feeler, an optimist or a pessimist? What are your passions, hopes, and dreams? What gets you excited, makes you sad, happy, joyful, or frustrated?
One tool for assessing personalities objectively is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), available through many community colleges and universities. It is used to measure basic preferences that reveal much about how people work, relate, make decisions, and respond to the environment in which they live. Each personality "type," determined through four scales, has its own set of inherent strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what traits we bring to our daily activities can help us pursue lifestyles that work with rather than against our inborn temperaments and talents.
While no indicator is perfect, the Myers-Briggs method can present an accurate composite of how people think, feel, and relate. This information can help you decide what type of work, inside or outside the home, might be most satisfying. For example, an extrovert whose daily routine involves frequent contact with others will probably enjoy it more than if he or she spent long periods of time alone. A creative type is likely to find tasks that are too methodical or predictable difficult to perform hour after hour, or day after day. And an introspective, reflective person may feel most at home in an environment that allows some time to think carefully through the tasks at hand.
Other characteristics also affect which jobs suit us best. My sister, Sue, for example, is a "night person." Several years ago, her job as a cocktail waitress allowed her to work in the evenings when her husband was home to care for their children. Often, she did not even leave for work until it was nearly time for her children to go to bed. Attracted to how well this arrangement worked for Sue and her family, I took a job at the lounge where she worked in the evening. However, as an extreme "morning person," I had little of the energy that abounded in my sister after 8:00 PM. Her ability to engage in lively, interesting conversation late into the evening almost always resulted in one or more generous tips from appreciative customers. Mine, by comparison, were far less impressive.
One night, after a long day at home caring for my then two-year-old son, I spilled an entire tray of drinks on a businessman from Rhode Island. Although he was most gracious about my exhaustion-induced fumble, my boss was far less understanding. Shortly afterwards, I hung up my waitress uniform for good--much to the relief of both my boss and my sister, who at times such as this surely wished she didn't know me at all!
Know Your Partner
Studies show that a partner's attitude toward breastfeeding can mean the difference between success and failure. Surely that's true of many, if not most, areas of a woman's life--for better or for worse. I once overheard a new mother say, "My husband doesn't want me to stay home." I couldn't believe my ears! "What do you want to do?" I wanted to ask. "Isn't this your baby, too?"
Other men feel differently. Many take pride in their wives' work at home and will do everything they can, including taking a second job if necessary, to make that possible. My own husband, Nick, agrees that the thirteen years I was at home full-time with our children provided stability and strength on which our family thrived. However, the dynamics of our relationship did change when I started bringing home a regular paycheck. The shift, while not cataclysmic, was significant enough to provoke some interesting new discussions about how money was being earned and spent--and by whom. I confess to being the "perpetrator," believing Nick's income to be "our" money and my income to be, well . . . mine! Eventually, we agreed on a compromise that both of us could live with.
During my years at home, Nick and I grew as individuals and as a couple, not in spite of the challenges of living on a single income, but because of them. The decision to sequence out of full-time mothering and back into the workplace was a mutual one. However, there were compromises I hadn't foreseen, especially when I moved from part-time to full-time work. Preparing nutritious meals, for example, was something I found almost impossible to do on a regular basis. Eventually I learned to plan better and use weekend time for cooking and freezing. But laundry still piles up faster than I can wash it, and doctor, dentist, and haircut appointments are sometimes put off longer than they should be.
Fortunately, I had excellent role models both for returning to the workplace and for remaining at home indefinitely. I also had lots of support either way, especially from Nick, whose ego not only survived, but thrived on his talents as housekeeper, cook, and, of course, Daddy. However, there are situations in which a woman is raising her family alone. In this instance, a child's father may or may not play a part in the sequencing process. Instead, a support system may consist primarily of others to whom a mother may turn for help in making decisions about supporting herself and her family. In some families, a grandparent is viewed as the most appropriate caretaker when mother is unavailable, even if the baby's father is ready, willing, and able to help. Whatever the situation, the availability of consistent child care by a loving and familiar caregiver is an important piece of the puzzle.
Know Your Children
It's no surprise that children who have grown accustomed to having their mother available virtually all the time may be less than enthusiastic about having their needs met by someone else. This is especially true of young children. Generally, the older a child is, the more adaptable he or she will be, but this is not always the case. Regardless of children's ages, respectful, sensitive attention to their feelings, both positive and negative, is essential. Some compromises are inevitable, but ignoring or devaluing a child's repeated attempts to convey his or her unhappiness sets the stage for future problems.
It's also important to consider what will happen when children become sick. Often, parents take turns staying home with sick children to minimize the total effect on their work time. Other families feel comfortable having children stay with a caretaker during illnesses. It's helpful to discuss how mother, father, and child feel about this before the need arises so that there will be a plan that will work best for the child. Sooner or later every child is bound to become ill, so every family will face this situation.
Older children may revel in the independence that mother's job demands of them and enjoy the new responsibilities it often entails. I am happy to report that most of the time, my children, now ages 13 and 16, feel this way. The time that they are home alone together after school generally goes smoothly. In other families, however, sibling rivalry or disregard for the family rules that govern this time may require a change in parental work schedules to provide needed supervision. As authors Deborah Shaw Lewis and Charmaine Crouse Yoest say in Mother in the Middle, "The best gifts in life have a price. And motherhood is one of the highest gifts we can be given."
Yet sometimes the greatest gift we can give our children is an understanding that there are circumstances in life beyond anyone's control. When decisions must be made about balancing adult needs and children's needs, or balancing one child's needs over another's, consulting the children can make this challenging time easier for everybody.
What is the bottom line? Babies need their mothers. Those who embrace this idea soon discover that toddlers, preschoolers, and older children do, too. Mothers also need their children, who lead them to discover and develop parts of themselves that might otherwise remain forever unknown. Out of this realization flows a variety of lifestyles designed to meet these needs as completely as possible. The needs themselves, however, are the boundaries by which decisions about any aspect of parenting ideally are measured. Pamela Meyers, theater director, writer, and a professor at DePaul University in Chicago says, "We all work within boundaries of some sort. Those who flourish take advantage of them, while those who flounder waste their time struggling against what they cannot change. Anything is possible within the boundaries if they are acknowledged, accepted, and used as facilitators--much like a river bank channels the flow of water." In other words, when viewed as positive instead of negative, limitations can lead to creative solutions that may otherwise have been overlooked.
Putting It All Together
Besides knowing yourself, your spouse and your children, successful sequencing involves other factors, too: knowing your employer or manager, for example. How does he or she feel about family demands sometimes taking precedence over work? Can you occasionally bring a child along for the day? Is travel to and from work fast and easy or does it take time that might be better devoted to home and family? Are part-time hours available? Is job-sharing an option? Can you do some of your work at home?
Questions about how and when to sequence are also important, but the answers vary depending on individual circumstances. A more challenging question is "why?" Some women cite personal growth, balance, and self-esteem. Others say educational expenses, insurance, debt, or planning for future needs are the basis for their decision. While all of these can be good reasons to seek paid employment, a job outside the home is not always the only nor the optimal solution. A mother who is wondering about what path to choose may find it helpful to ask herself some questions: Am I reacting hastily or should I think this through a little more? Are there alternatives to paid employment that I haven't considered? Must I find paid work now? Must it be outside rather than inside my home? The answers to these questions are not always simple to discern. However, a willingness to ask them helps ensure that the decisions which result are looked back upon later with little, if any, regret.
Finally, if possible, consider another sequencing technique often associated with weaning: "don't offer, don't refuse." This frees you to stay open to possibilities that may present themselves without pressure to pursue paid employment. If that's not possible, seek support necessary for juggling family, work, and other commitments while keeping stress at an acceptable level. Remember that few, if any, employment decisions are irreversible and that the road to successful sequencing is likely to be lined with detours, unexpected curves, and even an occasional dead end.
As for me, it's time once again for a change. The teen years are in full swing at my house, and they are as intense and as busy as I'd been told to expect. I've also found a graduate school program that's ideal for a mother whose family still needs her. Despite the financial challenges that will result, my full-time schedule is too much right now, for me and for my family. For a while, I'll be busy at home, and I can hardly wait; the memories of single-income living are deeply satisfying ones. But so were the last several years working outside the home, so I'll return when the time it right. For now, I am content to recognize anew that life is short and children are grown and gone in the blink of an eye. If it's at all possible, I don't want to miss a single minute.
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Betsy Liotus is a La Leche League Leader who lives in Schaumburg, Illinois with her husband Nick and their children Mike (16) and Melissa (13). She is the former Managing Editor of NEW BEGINNINGS and a current long-distance graduate school student at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota.