My youngest son, when he was still living with us, shocked me by saying that there were no family dinners during the week in the years he was growing up. Here I was, the mommy-cook to end all mommy-cooks, the person who would experiment with various recipes multiple times in her single years just to prepare for that wonderful day when she would get married, being told that she didn’t have family dinners. I was in school and juggling that work with my family obligations.

The Importance of Family Dinners

I checked with my husband who reminded me that the children stayed for after-school when I was in graduate school so that already took care of one or two meals during the week. But this wasn’t good enough for me. Suddenly, all those years that I had spent working so assiduously on my dissertation came into focus. For me, it had been all about my progress toward my personal goal, but what about being there for my children? When I started my doctorate, my youngest was only five.

Worse yet, my husband didn’t know how to cook, wasn’t about to learn, and could live on pizza. Furthermore, he was a marshmallow when it came to discipline and didn’t keep the same watchful eye on homework that I would have had. “Don’t worry, ma,” my son told me that eventful day, “I’m okay!” Well, that’s very nice to hear now that he is an adult, but still. . . . Did I do the right thing?

Nursing Creates a Bond that Pushes away Work

This point was brought home to me when I read about the comments that billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones made at the University of Virginia in April. According to Jones, regarding women traders, as soon as a woman bonds with her baby through nursing, she loses all focus on the stock market and how it’s functioning. It sounded to me like he was saying that the experience of nursing was so powerful that it would trivialize other issues.

This brought back to me images of my second foray into grad school. I had already acquired a Master’s Degree and I was in a doctoral program. I was pregnant with my first child. I felt so much pressure to study that, once she was born, I would do so while nursing. So maybe Tudor was wrong. On the other hand, I missed my baby so much every day that I went off to school that I eventually quit school. So maybe Tudor was right!

By the time I went back to grad school for the last time seven years had gone by and my children were older. They would be okay – or so I thought.

Why Work Outside the Home?

They say that to support a family today requires two incomes because of inflation. The dollar doesn’t go as far.

And then there is the issue of personal strengths. Since completing my doctorate and engaging in clinical practice, I seem to be getting a message that I am supposed to do this work. It appears to be a gift and gifts should not be treated lightly. Surely, it can’t be that the only gift women are given is to be capable mothers and great at making pizza from scratch. If they have other strengths, should they not be used? I, personally, prefer using women medical doctors, for example.

All that notwithstanding, it would be wrong for women to deny their maternal instincts. (In fact, if these maternal instincts aren’t even there, I would say they probably had some difficulties in their own childhood which need to be worked out so as to free them from the pain that they must still be carrying.) At the moment when a woman is nursing her baby, that relationship should be everything to her. It’s a joy which she should partake of to the fullest; God gave us delights and meant us to enjoy them. That is part of the joy of living.

Mothers Must Juggle Even If they Do Not Work Outside the Home

Even as I write these words, I realize that enshrining that mother-baby bond in a world of its own is an impossibility. What if there are other children? Surely, their needs are important, too and the love and warmth a mother feels toward these children as they demand a glass of milk or help with homework is no less than the love and warmth she feels towards her newest addition. Mothers must learn early on how to divide their attention in a way that honors the needs of each child, so she has already mastered the art of focusing on many while making each one feel as if he is worthy of that focus.

The fact that mothers must constantly be ready to shift focus – either because economics dictate that she work, or because she has some important personal strengths that she would like to use beyond the boundaries of the family, or just because she has more than one child clammoring for attention – does not make them great multi-taskers. It has been often said that women are superior multitaskers to men. However, research shows that across genders, multitasking is associated with a decline in productivity. For example, Christine Rosen reported in the New Atlantis  that “psychologist René Marois of Vanderbilt University . . . used fMRI to demonstrate the brain’s response to handling multiple tasks. Marois found evidence of a ‘response selection bottleneck’ that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. As a result, task-switching leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform.”

This makes the argument moot as to whether women are better multi-taskers than men; both genders are not served well by frequently having to switch their attention. The job does get done but at a cost of time, productivity, and possibly sanity.

Yet, women are constantly faced with this dilemma juggling work and family. Are we really supposed to do it all?

I believe we are supposed to be able to do many things and do them well; nevertheless we are not expected to be perfect. Only God is perfect. We are not. Down here in this world, our objective is not to be perfect but to strive in the right direction. We will never attain it because we are not meant to and therefore should not beat ourselves up over not doing so.

The answer then seems to be to try our best to do what we are good at, what we love, and what will bring benefit to ourselves, our families, and our communities and that includes being a good parent as well as a good worker. None of us is perfect and we are not supposed to be.

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