From the September/October 1994 issue
IT’S 1959 AND I HAVE JUST TURNED 13. YET, EVEN AS adolescence dawns and I begin to engage in timeless male initiation rites, I can still feel my mother’s presence everywhere.
My friend Mark and I are going fishing for the first time with “the men.” We are to get up at 4:30 am, announces my mother, after getting off the phone with Mark’s mother. Deep-sea fishing, I marvel, not quite realizing that the huge marlin I picture valiantly hauling in is actually flounder, and the deep sea happens to be a couple of miles off Coney Island.
The next morning before dawn, my mother wakes me up, prepares a big breakfast for my dad and me, and waves goodbye as we trudge out, carrying the lunch she made, along with extra socks and sweaters she packed, in case there is rough surf. Twelve hours later, we wolf down the two tiny flounder my mother has scraped, cleaned and thoroughly disinfected. Unfortunately, by the time Monday rolls around, I’m in bed, nauseated and blistered from the sun. “Oh well, it was worth it,” I think, as my mother places a cold cloth on my head, and a 7-Up, glass of ice cubes and her work number next to my bed.
IT’S NOW 35 YEARS LATER AND THE world has turned upside down. Everything, especially the gender landscape, has completely changed… well, perhaps not as much as we would like to believe. Dennis, a college instructor, and Sabrina, a corporate executive, come to see me about their 5-year-old son, Lee. Both Dennis and Sabrina have been married before, both are well-paid professionals, both doubted they would have any more children. Dennis informs me, with no small amount of pride, that he is “deeply involved” in his son’s upbringing and does a host of household and childrearing tasks. He plays with his son almost every day, takes him to the park and playground at least once each weekend and willingly “babysits” when Sabrina has to stay late at the office. But even with all his efforts, he complains that they are arguing so badly about how to handle their son that they rarely speak to each other except to fight.
When I ask them what the trouble is, Dennis answers immediately that Lee is having almost daily tantrums. “He isn’t making friends in school and alienates a lot of the other kids,” Dennis continues. Since Dennis has initiated the conversation and seems so articulate about his son’s difficulties, I ask him for more specific details. How does Lee react when he has to share one of his toys?
“Well, ah… urn… he doesn’t like it,” stammers Dennis, “but I’m not exactly sure just what happens.” At this point, Sabrina, who has begun tapping her fingers on her chair, breaks in. “I take him for most of his play dates,” she says crisply, and then provides a detailed description of Lee’s behavior how he hoards toys and cries uncontrollably when other children reach for his stash, how he suddenly develops a passion for any toy that another child is playing with, and so on.
I address a second question to Dennis. “What happens when you’re fixing dinner and Lee throws a tantrum? How do you control it? Does a snack help?”
“Well, maybe… sometimes…,” Dennis says, glancing at Sabrina. “Do you always give him a snack?” he asks her, tentatively.
Sabrina sighs. “Dennis teaches three nights a week and has student office hours on another night, so actually I’m home with Lee most evenings, and make dinner for him,” she says. “Yes, sometimes a snack calms him down, and sometimes I can distract him by letting him help me with some little thing, like carrying cups to the table. But other times, nothing works at all.”
I press on, this time addressing the question to both of them. “What does Lee’s teacher say about the trouble he has with his classmates?” As if by mutual consent, Sabrina now takes over. “The teacher believes that Lee has a particularly hard time with two of the rougher boys Ken and Justin. They are a lot bigger than Lee is and are always bugging him.”
“Now, are they the boys who…?” Dennis begins to ask in a puzzled tone.
“I’ve already told you this, Dennis,” Sabrina snaps. “They are the same boys who pushed him into a corner and took his lunch last week.”
Overall, the session sounded exactly like a thousand others I’ve conducted with families in which a father was ‘very involved” in raising the child, not only in his own estimation, but often according to his wife as well. Certainly, Dennis was doing much more childcare and household work than his father had ever dreamed of doing, and he was much more involved than many of his own peers at work But if I wanted to know specific details about Lee’s life how he spent his day, how he behaved, where, when and under what circumstances he had his good times and bad, how his peers and teachers interacted with him I would have to ask his mother, just as the family pediatrician would have had to ask my mother about me 40 years ago.
However involved Dennis thought he was, however much he and his wife believed they embodied a new ’90s consciousness of “shared parenting,” it was obviously still mother who was “parenting central,” who not only carried the lion’s share of the physical and practical parenting and housekeeping chores, but made most of the daily decisions about Lee’s life as well. Nor is this presumably enlightened family uncommon. In spite of massive changes in gender relations over the past 30 years, when children are born, most parents revert to a modified style of traditional parenting, which sociologist Arlie Hochschild referred to as the “Mom’s responsible, Dad helps out” paradigm in her widely acclaimed 1987 book, The Second Shift. According to Hochschild’s studies, fathers still are defined, and define themselves, primarily as breadwinners and providers, and only secondarily as “helpers” on the home front. And, in spite of the undeniable changes in fatherhood, compared with the standard 1950s and 1960s model that most young parents remember from their own childhoods, Hochschild estimates that the mothers married to these men do far more housework and parenting than the fathers the equivalent of one full month of 24-hour days more than their spouses. Seven years after the book’s publication, Hochschild’s view is harder to accept. After all, the media movies, TV sitcoms, magazines have portrayed a rash of telegenic New Age dads handling babies, cooking (or ordering takeout) and advising their preteen youngsters on peer relations and dating strategies. According to a 1993 survey of several hundred parents by Child magazine, only 1 in 10 dads considers himself (or is considered by his wife) to be a relatively uninvolved “backseat dad.” A full 25 percent of today’s fathers, compared to just two percent a generation ago, regularly participate in the hands-on care of their children bathing, dressing, diapering, putting to bed and so on. Unfortunately, in the glow of this progress, it is easy to forget that at the other end of that 25 percent is the 75 percent of dads who rarely help out at all. In fact, half of the fathers surveyed who defined their participation at home as “well-rounded” meant that they helped with childcare only “as their schedules permitted.”
THE UNSETTLING RESULTS IN CHILD magazine, with its sample of self-selected and relatively upscale families, could easily be dismissed. However, they are supported by other, more widely based studies. In 1993, the Family and Work Institute conducted a national survey of nearly 3,000 randomly selected men and women cutting across economic, regional, racial and age groups. Their findings: In the postmodern, post-feminist United States, women were still two times more likely to pay household bills than men, five times more likely to cook for the family, five times more likely to do the family shopping, and eleven times more likely to do the household cleaning. This is true, the survey concluded, “even in families where women contribute half or more of the family income and where workers are young.”
Since there is such a discrepancy between the appearance of change and what actually happens behind closed doors and because I believe hidden imbalances in childcare contribute enormously to tension between parents, I’ve begun asking couples to document who does what around the house. For example, at the end of the first session, I asked Dennis and Sabrina to write down everything each of them did or thought about in relation to the kids during a weekday evening or morning. At the next session, they brought their lists, covering a Wednesday night from 6 to 11 pm As Dennis’s record showed, he was involved: calling home to see whether he should pick up anything, setting the dinner table, cleaning up around the house, checking on homework, reading and saying goodnight to the kids. Dennis indeed, seemed to be a hands-on father-until Sabrina produced her list.
Where Dennis had recorded a dozen tasks on a 3 x 5 index card, she unfurled a six-foot scroll that covered almost 100 items. Reading them took the entire session. The following are only a sample-respond to kids badgering her about arrangements for the weekend and asking for permission about snacks; pack bags for sleepovers; pay bills; call other parents to set up play dates; braid her daughter’s hair; make about 20 phone calls as class mother; buy Christmas presents for the babysitter; do a load of washing; talk to her husband’s mother (after he hands the phone to her); check the kids’ homework-teed the cat; write thank-you notes for a recent birthday party. Sabrina’s list seemed truly endless. Her words upon finishing were, “Everything in this family gets routed through me. There isn’t a single event that I’m not somehow directly or indirectly involved with. No wonder I walk around feeling
exhausted and furious.” Even Dennis was taken aback by this graphic evidence of just how unbalanced the division of labor really was in his modern, two-career family. family. Dennis’s quite respectable contributions were little more than footnotes, the endless list of parenting demands that mothers typically fulfill I’ve repeated this “endless list” exercise with hundreds of couples, with, with generally Not only are both spouses surprised at the discrepancy (fathers are usually stunned), but therapists themselves can get a graphic picture of just how durable the “Mom’s responsible, Dad helps out” paradigm is.
If you are parents, ask yourselves the following questions as a gauge of who assumes ultimate responsibility for thinking about the tasks that make up the endless list and seeing that they get done Which of you, mother or father, knows more of the answers?
1. What are the shoe sizes of your children?
2. Who first notices the signs that one of your children is getting sick?
3. Who informs the school when your child won’t be coming and calls the parents of your child’s playmates to warn them that he or she has the chicken pox or some other communicable illness?
4. Who bought the last book on any aspect of childrearing?
5. Who usually buys small “thinking of you” presents when your child seems to be blue?
6. Who sets up play dates, makes the arrangements for them and thinks ahead about how to schedule the weekend?
7. Who researches local pediatricians babysitters, nursery schools, day care centers, camps and after-school activities?
8. Who plans and organizes birthday parties and other special child-related events, wraps presents, writes cards and thank you notes?
9. Whose datebook contains the times of the school concert, Little League sign-up, school committee meetings and other child-related events?
10. Who does your child usually open up to when upset, run to when hurt, or scream at when mad?
If your own household arrangements do not significantly differ from those of most American families in just about any configuration whether they are in therapy or whether they include one or more adult therapists you, too, have implicitly accepted the standard paradigm of “Mom’s responsible, Dad helps out.” And this still-taken-for-granted division of labor has profound effects on the therapy we do as well as on our personal lives. For however rationalized, it inevitably generates parental disagreements about childrearing, particularly discipline, communication with kids and life-cycle transitions the very subjects that often bring families to seek our help.
WHEN IT CAME TO “THE RULES,” my mother and I engaged in daily guerrilla warfare. It was amazing how many brushfires could begin and then abruptly die out in that half-hour before my father arrived. There seemed to be no end to the chores I was supposed to do, all of which I wheedled, debated and tried to cajole my way out of, until the inevitable “Wait until your father gets home!” If things hadn’t gone well for him at work, and the squabbling at home continued, he’d erupt in a rage. And yet, while his volcanic anger was frightening, it seemed curiously disconnected from my daily life, a distant thunderclap as my mother and I trudged through the swamp of family routine.
However placid a family appears, however well-behaved the children, chances are that beneath the orderly surface there are well-worn arguments between the parents about discipline. “He’s too rough he won’t give the kid a chance to explain before lighting into him like the NYPD,” complains Mom. “She’s such a marshmallow; she just lets the kids walk all over her,” Dad rejoins. Traditionally, in therapy as in the rest of the culture, men have been regarded as “tough-minded” and “dispassionate,” while women are more “empathic” and “sensitive” (read: “enmeshed”), viewing their children through a rosy lens of “mother love” and therefore seen as less effective disciplinarians. In the classical, structuralist era of family therapy, clinicians implicitly reinforced this notion with interventions designed to create “more appropriate” hierarchies within families. We encouraged mothers to move offstage, while we brought in fathers’ more “realistic” ways of parenting center stage. I now believe that women’s responsibility for fulfilling the demand of the endless list turns this stereotype upside down. Men, insulated from the pandemonium of daily life with children, protected from the constant pressure to plan and carry through the details of child-rearing, can afford the luxury of disciplinary idealism, whereas women quickly learn the necessity of hard-nosed pragmatism if they want to survive emotionally and see their children grow up. As keepers of tradition or de facto armchair generals, men can create disciplinary scenarios of perfect fairness and justice. Women, on the other hand, struggling day to day in the trenches, must learn to accept little defeats to avoid bigger ones, settle for imperfect victories and learn the fine art of creative haggling.
THE “MOM’S RESPONSIBLE, DAD helps out” paradigm showed up during a heated exchange between Michelle and Howard, the parents of 4-year-old Lydia, while they were attending one of my parenting workshops. The couple had taken Lydia to a concert, a two-hour affair that had clearly outstripped the child’s capacity for decorum, patience and music appreciation. Between periods of relative quiet, her squirming and whining aggravated Howard so much that even the memory of it caused him to yell at his wife in front of 200 other workshop attendees: “She disturbed everybody within earshot! She was awful! And you just let it go on! If we don’t make her behave now, how will she ever learn to sit still and be quiet?”
Michelle, no more intimidated by 200 other parents than Howard, yelled back, “What the hell do you want from a 4-year-old? She hadn’t had a nap, she had practically no lunch, and she’s a very little girl. At least we got through the entire concert, and she only really started having trouble at the end.” What fueled Michelle’s argument was, first, her practical knowledge, borne of experience, that Lydia hadn’t been so bad. All things considered, it was unlikely, short of using terrorist tactics, that they could transform their active 4-year-old into an ideal concertgoer; and second, a defensive but quite realistic belief that if Lydia created a scene in front of a crowd, she, as the mother, would be held responsible by everybody there.
Ironically, when it comes to discipline, the pragmatist versus the idealist split often occurs in the other direction, as well, with the mother becoming the family authoritarian, while the father assumes the role of humanitarian and all-around nice guy. “I feel like a drill sergeant,” I’ve heard thousands of mothers say, “but if I don’t keep pushing, pushing, pushing, the kids won’t get to school on time, homework and chores won’t get done, dinner will never be on the table, nobody will ever get to bed.” And in the face of what these mothers feel is an uphill battle to keep the household from falling into total chaos, fathers are often the fifth column. “He never sets any limits. He goes behind my back and lets them do things I’ve told them they can’t do the way he turns me into the heavy makes me sick.” To which the father typically retorts, “She’s much too rigid; she makes a federal case out of every little thing they do. I don’t see why she’s so controlling they’re really pretty good kids.”
Is this still mom as pragmatist and dad as idealist? Absolutely. She feels she is barely treading water, overwhelmed by demands and duties, required to come down hard on the kids (and Dad) in order to keep a thin veneer of control over the potential chaos that American family life often resembles. “Mr. Nice Guy,” on the other hand, can maintain his good nature precisely because he is spared just enough of the struggle and organizational responsibility to keep his cool.
Jim, an even-tempered father, for example, complained about the screaming around the house every morning. “I can’t stand ‘the struggles between Sally and the children she’s on their case from the minute they get up. I can’t believe this is the way the day has to start. Why burden them with so many rules and ‘shoulds’?” “He’s right,” his wife, Sally said, near tears. “I’m impossible. I can’t stand myself, either.”
When I asked how the morning worked, and who did what with the kids, the reasons for Sally’s “impossibility” became more clear. She began to describe the morning chaos: brushing teeth, getting washed, finding the right clothes, fixing lunch, dealing with unexpected tantrums and so on. Many of these tasks were evenly divided except for one small detail: somehow, Jim was allowed 30 extra minutes in the bathroom to prepare for the work day. During those precious 30 minutes, it was up to Sally to get the kids finished dressing, make sure they had their homework, referee last-minute quarrels, and get herself ready for work as well. This uneven distribution of a vital commodity time was taken for granted by both spouses. Jim might have been Mr. Nice Guy and Sally too driven, but behind her tension was a hard-boiled pragmatist trying to make a dent in the endless list. “Things have to get done by a certain time. Otherwise, the school bus will leave without Becky or the lunches won’t be packed, or… or ” Somebody had to think about these things, but it wasn’t going to be Jim, at least not during his half-hour meditation in the bathroom.
I asked Sally and Jim to change roles for just one or two mornings, allowing her an extra 30 minutes alone while he launched the kids on their morning routine. At first, Sally refused. Like many mothers, she felt uneasy about relinquishing control and was afraid Jim wouldn’t get it right: “I know what to do, I can handle it. Besides, the kids will want me, anyway. Let’s just leave things the way they are.” I encouraged her to let Jim deal with the kids when they started screaming, “I want Mommy.” Finally, she agreed she would try to ignore their pleas and ride her exercise bike for 30 minutes while he took on this added section of the endless list. For both Jim and Sally, the experience was a revelation. “I was awful,” he admitted, now sounding as self-critical as his wife. “They drove me crazy. I got furious. I yelled, I screamed, I threatened. I did anything I could to get them going and out of the house on time. And I ended up being late to work anyway.”
Balanced participation is the great equalizer. As long as mothers are still implicitly in charge of the endless list, their disciplinary approach is often based on the pragmatic belief that “I just want to get through the day. If it works, I’ll use it.” From this perspective, a strict or lenient father, who is even slightly less involved but continues to emphasize character-building discipline on the one hand and the necessity of teaching independent thought on the other, might as well be talking a foreign language to the overloaded pragmatist he lives with. He is ultimately dismissed by both mother and child. This is less because of “pathological cross-generational collusion,” as classic family therapy tradition might have diagnosed it, than because he has not put in enough endless-list time to give him the legitimacy to claim true authority.
I WAS 16 AND SITTING IN THE LIVING room, crushed that my girlfriend was breaking up with me. I hardly noticed my mother somewhere nearby, on her weekly search-and-destroy mission against lint, dust, grease and grime all of which she could (with some justification) trace back to me. Without looking over her shoulder, she said, “Ronnie, is something wrong?” Tears formed tiny rivulets down my cheeks. I mumbled, without looking up, “Laura is breaking…” She stopped for a moment, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, softly, “Well, there’ll be others. You’ll see.”
Not exactly high-tech parenting, but something about this tender cliche made me feel just a little bit better. By the time my father came home 20 minutes later, I was still feeling bad, but certainly would never mention it again. In our family, this kind of deep, interpersonal exchange was a rare event and you just had to be there at the right time.
A tragic imbalance in family life is that children usually open up more to mothers than to fathers. Longitudinal research on normal families has long demonstrated this, as does my own clinical experience with dysfunctional families. But 15-year-old Bobby put it best: “My dad and I have a real strong father-son thing, but I save the important, emotional stuff for my mom.”
Again, one can lean on stereotypes for explanations. After all, women are socialized to be good listeners, to be empathic, sensitive, etc., and so it makes sense for children to seek them out. However, in daily life there is a more ordinary reason why kids don’t communicate as readily with fathers: no child of any age opens up according to a predictable schedule; they talk when and where they feel like it, usually while doing parallel, mindless activities with a parent. Consequently, the parent who engages in more drudgery with children, who sets a dinner table with them, puts them to bed, gives them a bath, goes to the doctor, wraps presents or drives them to their activities is the one who learns the facts of their lives. Obviously, when the endless list is unbalanced, communication is out of kilter as well, because one parent (usually the mother) gets more of the exposure. The stage is set for mom to become the child expert and for dad to slip away from the family’s emotional center and, eventually, find himself at the periphery of its daily life.
The interactive fluidity that develops between mothers and children is secretly envied by many fathers even when they criticize their partners. Laird, for example, complained about his wife, Harriet’s, short temper. Still, he also envied the way she and their two grade-school children interacted so effortlessly. Laird described the following scene:
Mom: “Hurry up and get dressed. You’re going to miss the bus.”
Bobby: “My toast is burned. I don’t want to eat it.”
Amy: “Mom, Bobby took my hair brush again!”
Mom (more loudly): “Will you both stop dawdling and get moving.”
Bobby: “I was only going to use it for five minutes.”
Mom: “Amy, did you wash your face?”
Amy: (Doesn’t answer, staring at the TV.)
Mom (yelling): “Amy! I said, did you wash up? Bobby, I don’t see you putting your socks on!”
Amy: “Mom, stop screaming. I’m tired. I don’t want to put my clothes on yet.”
Mom (screaming): “I’ve had it with you two! Get downstairs right this very minute or…!”
Yet, five minutes after this series of mini-explosions, Bobby is contentedly sitting next to Mom munching cereal, and Amy is on Mom’s lap getting her hair brushed as if nothing had happened. Laird may be right to worry about these scenes; Harriet and the kids are probably embroiled in too many power struggles. At the same time, he feels like a spectator watching another species in their natural habitat, and there is something pained in his voice as he describes these strange beings who inhabit his house. They are the family, he almost feels, while he is not quite part of it.
If drudgery is the glue of everyday life, then details are its active ingredients. When a father doesn’t know the names of the children in his daughter’s class, or exactly who comprises the “in” group and the “out” group; when he isn’t in direct communication with the teacher about absences or schoolwork, vague questions like, “How was school today?” end up being met with maddeningly opaque answers. The stonewalling that kids do (to both parents) can especially hurt fathers who already feel peripheral to the life of the family.
Speaking for many, Peter, a dad in a parenting workshop, asked his 9-year-old son, John, “Why don’t you give me a straight answer when I ask you about school? I’m tired of hearing everything from your mother. It really bothers me.”
“But you don’t ask specific questions,” John articulately replied. “When you say, ‘How was school today?’ I don’t know what you mean. If you were more specific, I’d remember better. It makes me think you’re not really interested.”
John’s words plunged 100 parents and children into total silence. You could feel sadness spreading across the room. This classic misunderstanding between a father and child is incredibly familiar. Peter does care it was impossible to miss the hurt look on his face. But, his inability to ask precise, detailed questions caused John to doubt his sincerity, his authentic desire to know. Like too many fathers, Peter ends up feeling rejected. He subtly withdraws, then must rely even more on his wife for information, while increasingly resenting her position as family switchboard. In the meantime, she feels indispensable, but increasingly overwhelmed.
IN ORDER TO KEEP THEMSELVES from sliding toward the periphery, many fathers engage in special “daddy events.” Unfortunately, these just don’t cut it when it comes to fostering real communication with a child. Try making yourself heard over the roar of the crowd at a basketball game, above the shrieks and squeals on a ferris wheel or over the blaring PA system at the circus. You may get a thrill when “The Wave” surges through your section of the ballpark, but the setting is far from intimate and it’s certainly not the sort of quiet activity that encourages kids to open up. Besides, children are usually so hyped at these events, they don’t even notice who’s with them, let alone want to engage in deep, soul-baring conversation. Once again, it’s the person who does the daily scutwork with kids still more likely to be mom who reaps the rewards of shared confidences.
The pain men experience at being locked out of their children’s lives and their dependence on their wives for entry is dangerous for families; it is one of the reasons fathers feel compelled to lecture, criticize or bully children. When I asked Jerry, the father of 11- and 14-year-old boys, why he exploded at his kids so often, he candidly replied, “Because I’m like a stranger in my own house. The only one they really talk to is my wife. I know what I do is wrong, but sometimes it’s the only way of making myself heard.”
In another family, Al was trying to defend why, according to his outraged wife, Melinda, he so roughly yanked their balky 3-year-old from a car seat. After stonewalling with the usual, “He’s got to learn who’s boss,” the raw truth emerged: “The entire trip, every single question he asked was ‘Mommy this’ and ‘Mommy that.’ Here I am driving two hours, and it’s as if I don’t exist.” Like children who act out to get the parental attention they crave, this man resorted to the only tactic he knew to get the attention he craved from his son.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP mothers and fathers create more balanced communication? One obvious solution, though by no means easy, is to redistribute the endless list so that dad engages in the ordinary tasks of childrearing. The best opportunities for connecting with children are during those everyday, non-special moments bed time, bath time, while driving them to soccer practice or to the doctor’s, when they are sick or tired and need soothing or want a story read to them. These are the unexciting, relaxed and unself-conscious moments when children are most likely to open up.
Simple changes can sometimes make enormous differences. For example, Bert knew that his 8-year-old stepson, Charlie, was having trouble at school, but all his information had come secondhand, from his wife, Yvonne. Trying to forge some connection of his own with Charlie, he tried talking to him about school, but to every question, all he got were monosyllables. Feeling more than a little rejected, he tried to push his way into the family configuration by second-guessing and criticizing Yvonne, telling her how to discipline Charlie and accusing her of not being “tough enough.” Yvonne was furious and counterattacked by calling him a “backseat driver” and told him he had some nerve to lecture her when he didn’t have a clue about what was going on. Their fights about childrearing had led them to consider divorce.
I suggested one small change: that Bert take Charlie with him every Saturday and Sunday to get the newspapers a leisurely 15-minute stroll into town. Both Yvonne and Bert looked as if I were obviously too simple-minded to be engaged with the complex job of helping a stepfamily. “Give me a break!” said Yvonne. “You don’t seriously believe that will make a difference?” Bert asked in disbelief.
But they tried it, and two weeks later, on one of the newspaper strolls, Charlie started telling Bert that he had become the class scapegoat. He finished his fairly long recitation by asking, a little timidly, whether Bert might have some advice for him on how to handle the situation. This was the first satisfying conversation Bert had had with his stepson since the two met.
Their 15-minute walk addressed three complex problem areas-. First, it allowed Bert and Charlie to connect without Yvonne as the intermediary. Second, Yvonne and Bert fought less about who was the real childrearing “expert.” Third, the new connection with Charlie felt so good to Bert that he figured out other ways to spend ordinary time with him. Within four sessions, the fighting between Yvonne and Bert significantly lessened and all three were beginning to feel like a real family.
WHEN I WAS 17, THE LAW, IN ITS infinite wisdom, permitted me, as a high-school senior, to drive a two-ton Chevrolet around town. This transition did not bode well for peace in the Taffel household. In my parents’ vivid, but not unrealistic, mutual imaginings, there was no end to the trouble that could happen in the immediate vicinity of the car, not to mention the mischief that might occur inside it. So, returning late at night, I inevitably found my mother hanging out the window, poised to dial the police emergency number. Unaware that she was fronting for the real worrier, my father, sparks flew between us because of this humiliating display of overprotectiveness.
One particular night after I drove off, it started snowing. Not surprisingly, when I returned home, there she was at the window. I went to their bedroom to engage in the old-fashioned custom of kissing my parents goodnight and found her in bed, pretending to be asleep. “Oh,” she said, in a feigned, dreamy voice. “Did you just get home?” She did this so convincingly that I began to think I had imagined seeing her at the window except that her hair was wet and sprinkled with unmelted snow.
Discipline and communication are not the only issues affected by the “Mom’s responsible, Dad helps out” paradigm. Imbalances in the endless list also sow seeds for explosive differences during important developmental transitions which is the time therapists most often meet families. While family therapists often have approached transitional difficulties with exotic concepts like homeostasis or systemic overload, the “Mom’s responsible, Dad helps out” paradigm is usually ignored. But the imbalance in childrearing expectations practically guarantees that women and men enter these impending transitions at very different points in time mom several months to years earlier than dad.
If mothers are in charge of the family’s everyday emotional life, they are held particularly responsible for managing family change and child development. By the time dad realizes that Jimmy is crawling and follows him around with a camera to catch every precious moment, mom has long since begun thinking about how to baby-proof the house. Indeed, she has probably spoken to her own mother or sister, consulted other mothers or read magazines on the subject and made plans for the contents of all lower-level cupboards and drawers.
In one family, Mark, the father, demanded of his wife, Rhona, “Why can’t you just say goodnight and leave?” Their younger son, Adam, is six months old and they came to see me because the intimacy in their relationship (a second marriage for both) had dipped to what they consider to be a dangerously low level. Mark goes on, “It takes you an hour to get ready to leave the house and we’ll only be gone for a couple of hours anyway. You just can’t let go. You’re more interested in Adam than me!”
Mark lays the problem directly at Rhona’s feet; he thinks she wants nothing to do with him and he’s begun to slip defensively toward the periphery-working extra hours, coming home later, and participating less at home. But, if we look at Rhona’s behavior from the endless list perspective, maybe she isn’t just another overinvolved mother who is ignoring her mate. Perhaps she is checking to make sure there are enough diapers and bottles for the baby, showing the sitter where cookies and chips are stored in case she gets hungry, writing down emergency numbers, instructing the babysitter about what to do if Adam has trouble getting to sleep, taking a little extra time to make sure she and her child feel comfortable with this relative stranger. Meanwhile, Mark sits out in the car, fuming. But as loving and committed a father as he is, he doesn’t feel responsible for the transition. Therefore, he doesn’t experience direct involvement with the details. Instead, he feels hurt and aggravated because Rhona is ignoring him.
Another reason women and men are out of synch during transitions is because mothers have more inside information about what’s really going on and with kids today, there’s plenty to worry about. Cliff and Beatrice, parents of 14-year-old Marie, came to see me because of their escalating fights over dealing with Marie’s push toward independence. This particular argument was about a Friday night party.
“Everybody will be there,” Marie screamed at her mother. “I’ll die if I’m the only one who can’t go. Dad said I could go if you say it’s okay,” she challenged.
“Well, it’s not okay,” Beatrice insisted.
“You never want me to have any fun!” Marie accused.
Cliff sided with his daughter. “It’s just a simple party. You’ve got to let her grow up,” he shouted at his wife.
“Maybe I do have a problem letting go,” Beatrice said. “But do you know who will be at this party? Did you speak with any of the other parents to find out what’s happening?”
Of course, Cliff hadn’t. As it almost always is, the telephone network had been “manned” by women. Having spoken with the other mothers involved, Beatrice knew a few details that Cliff didn’t. Indeed, the host parents would not be home; elderly grandparents would be in charge. She also heard talk that some neighborhood kids were going to crash the party with LSD, marijuana and beer. Cliff cared just as much as Beatrice about his daughter’s welfare, and as soon as he learned these details and questioned Marie himself, he changed his position immediately. “Forget it,” he said to his daughter, “your mother is right. There isn’t enough supervision for my taste, either.”
MOTHERS AND FATHERS ARE ON separate wavelengths during transitions because their lives are affected in vastly different ways. Each change in a child’s routine precipitates losses and beginnings that significantly alter the way mothers concretely live their lives. For example, Joyce, a mother I met at a parenting workshop, described how she felt the year her daughter began kindergarten. “Jenny had gone to the same preschool for three years. I knew all the teachers and many of the other parents. We had a certain routine; I knew which mothers I could depend on. Now, there are all new faces when I drop her off on my way to work. I know it will pass, but right now I feel lost.”
Clearly, Joyce wasn’t only letting Jenny go, but losing an important support group as well. Her husband, Les, was elated by his daughter’s transition to real school, and couldn’t understand why Joyce was so upset. He suspected that she “just wanted to keep Jenny a baby,” and didn’t realize that his wife was saying goodbye to a vital network that had been very important to her.
Much of the substance of family therapy, the vast menu of structural and strategic interventions, prescribed rituals, invariant prescriptions, psychoeducation and all the rest of it, are actually sophisticated ways of helping parents “get into synch” so they can start actually doing the job together with the same information and in the same time frame.
Therapeutic tasks and interventions that move parents into some kind of healthy synchronicity are all to the good. But no therapy technique, no course on parenting skills, no authoritative pronouncement of the latest fashionable childrearing theory can work in the long run if it is not grounded in the fundamental assumption that both parents are ultimately responsible for the endless list of childrearing. And this responsibility is expressed in the thousands of mundane, gritty and often boring tasks that constitute the daily grind of good-enough parenting. Paradoxically, recognizing its taken-for-granted ordinariness can set off all kinds of fireworks. So go slowly you are challenging age-old beliefs, the very fabric of many families’ lives and what many mothers and fathers expect from each other.
AT FIVE A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1985, I awoke from a dream in which my mother’s hand was withering away and she was going to join my father, who had died when I was 22, in another land “It’s just a dream,” I thought to myself. I’d spoken to her the day before and she sounded fine. A bit worried, though, I tried to call her before my first patient. Unfortunately, I got a busy signal.
By 2:30, when I arrived at the hospital, she was dying from a virulent infection of the bloodstream, one organ system shutting down after the other. Three hours later, my mother was dead. I soon learned that her symptoms had started at 5:00 a.m., exactly when I was having that dream.
To explain this extraordinary coincidence, one could hypothesize about our continued unconscious merger, lack of differentiation or even telepathic communication. Perhaps there’s some truth to all of this. But, over the years, I’ve found another, simpler explanation. It was those hours of ordinary time, her endless list, that got under my skin and into my soul. Even as I looked with horror and disbelief at her lifeless body, I suddenly realized that this was the first time I had ever seen my mother still.
Ron Taffel, PhD, is Chair, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in NYC, the author of eight books and over 100 articles on therapy and family life.