Lean In to Chill Out

Recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’. I know, I’m about 18 months late to the party. I have to say I absolutely loved it! I found myself nodding in agreement and frequently talking out loud to her. It brought me back to my days working in a corporate environment in both London and Dublin. So much of her story rang true.

Much of Lean In made my mind run wild, filling myself up with inspirational content. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d highly recommend the book, for both men and women alike. It’s an easy, quick read. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, in a nutshell, it’s around women’s progress in the working environment, and why they have not achieved as many high-level, leadership roles, as their male counterparts. In essence, Sheryl looks at ways of empowering women to ‘reach their full potential’.

One area of the book I found fascinating was the concept of how many hours mothers will spend ‘focused on their children’. Sheryl describes how in the United States in 1975, stay-at-home mothers spent an average of about eleven hours per week on primary child care (defined as routine caregiving and activities that foster a child’s well-being, such as reading and fully focused play). And in the same year, mothers employed outside the home spent six hours doing these activities. I was totally shocked at what came next… ‘Today, stay-at-home mothers spend about seventeen hours per week on primary child care, on average, while those working outside the home spend about eleven’!!! Holy moly. So nowadays in the States (which I’m sure translates to similar stats here across the pond), an employed mother spends roughly the same amount of time on primary care activities as a stay-at-home mother did back then.

From those stats we can see that women are blooming killing themselves trying to do too much to achieve this relatively new phenomenon of the ‘perfect mother’, whatever that is. As mother’s emotional and physical wellbeing are hugely important to me, let’s talk this through…

I know this is a highly emotive topic, which divides opinions greatly. Each woman obviously wants to know that she is doing right by her kids. It’s important to highlight from the outset that there is no right way of parenting. And as women, we shouldn’t judge another woman’s choices. If a woman wants to leave her job to raise her children and become a stay-at-home mother, then kudos to her – there is NO more challenging, demanding and important job in the world. Similarly, if a mother prefers to become employed outside of the home, or go back to work when she has kids, that’s a powerful decision too, one which brings its own set of enormous challenges. And let’s face it, some women don’t have a choice in the matter.

When I talk to women employed outside the home, they are so tired and drained, and feel pulled emotionally in so many different directions. Something that has always concerned me was that so many women in these positions feel very, very guilty about not doing either job ‘well enough’. We have to stop this self sabotage and judgement of ourselves and other women.

Sheryl talks about how society today seems to be creating this definition of a ‘good mother’, as ‘one who is always around and always devoted to the needs of her children’. Sociologists call this relatively new phenomenon “intensive mothering” (another term is helicopter parenting), which has ‘culturally elevated the importance of women spending large amounts of time with their children’. Some would argue that this intensive mothering is not beneficial to the child, the mother, or indeed to society.

The fairly recent occurrence of the term ‘play dates’ drives me absolutely batty. I actually hate the term and try to never use it if humanly possible. Maybe I’m overreacting here. Anyone else feel like this?! I like to stick to the 1980’s rules of my own childhood. I ask if kids want to come over to play for a while. And that playing means the kids actually playing…not with me standing there supervising every minute. There are now about 9 kids on our road of similar age who all play together. In general, they go from house to house, or garden to garden, playing their own games without the interference of their parents. They have to sort out their own problems when they occur. I think that process is a crucial part of childhood. They learn to win, lose, include others, see what if feels like to sometimes feel left out, to sometimes feel like the leader etc.

I certainly don’t remember my mum or dad, or anyone else's for that matter “intensively parenting” - standing on the road while we were playing chasing, or tip the can (wicked game that), or rounders. How annoying would that have been?! We knew where they were if there was a problem, but otherwise we just got on with it. I worry that this “intensive parenting” approach will make total softies out of all our kids, which will, in turn create adults who are unable to cope with the stress of life when it throws some sh*t at them…which inevitably it will, and often.

So let’s turn to the research to see what the facts actually say on this highly emotive subject. Sheryl Sandberg describes the research undertaken in 1991 by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (USA), on the effect of exclusive maternal care versus child care. A team of thirty child development experts from leading universities, spent eighteen months designing the study. They tracked more than one thousand children over the course of fifteen years…obviously a comprehensive study. The research assessed the children’s cognitive skills, language abilities, and social behaviours. Then in 2006, the researchers released a report summarizing their findings. This was their conclusion:

“Children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were cared for by others”. You can’t argue with those results. So if the type of childcare doesn’t have any major influence (as long as it is safe & loving), what exactly does influence a child’s development?

Parental behavioural factors – including fathers who ‘are responsive and positive, mothers who favour “self-directed child behaviour”, and parents with emotional intimacy in their marriages’. And these factors influence a child’s behaviour two to three times more than any form of child care!! And perhaps the best line of the summary is this:

“Exclusive maternal care was not related to better or worse outcomes for children. There is, thus, no reason for mothers to feel as though they are harming their children if they decide to work” (outside of the home).

Every day in my classes, I see how nervous many mothers are about the impact their return to work will have on their precious babies. So if you are, or have been concerned in the past, that your working situation is having a negative impact on your little ones development, then fear not! I wanted to make sure to spread that important nugget of information.

Really, there is never one ‘right’ solution, just the solution that fits and feels right for a woman’s own personal family situation. So if it’s right for that unit, can we please stop judging?

Women should NOT feel guilty about working outside the home if they wish / need to, as, as long as they are spending a few hours of dedicated time per week with their children.

Personally, I like that my own children see me working, outside of the home, and see that their daddy also helps out with his share of housework. For me, it demonstrates that choice is an option – choice that a woman can go out to work if she wants to and that men can also do the laundry, the dishes, the hoovering, and any other household task, which therefore brings balance and harmony to a family unit.

From the research, it seems that as parents, we should be more concerned about leaning in more to our own relationship – be kind and loving to each other; to dad being emotionally available for the kiddies; and to mama perhaps loosening the reigns a little and just let the kids be kids.

Helen Plass, owner of NurtureMamas.com, is a Pre & Postnatal Fitness Specialist, and Yoga Instructor, working with women and their birthing partners to achieve a comfortable, healthy & happy journey into Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood. She is known for her very practical & non-judgmental approach to pregnancy and birth, and the crazy times of motherhood.

Go to NurtureMamas.com to sign up for her weekly tips, videos, interviews and more. Check out her online courses here.

For more details on Sandberg’s book and concept, see here.

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