Young families struggle to balance the demands of children and employers
Deborah Irvine is a glutton for work. By her early thirties, she had become policy adviser to the chairman of Ontario Hydro in Toronto, while simultaneously raising two preschool children and putting her husband through university. A skilled organizer, Irvine thought she had her life nicely worked out: marriage, children and career. But there were troublesome signs. “I was frantic to get out of the office so I could get home by 5:30 to relieve my babysitter,” she recalls. “My husband and I would rush around making dinner, bathe my sons and read to them before bed. Then, I’d pull out my briefcase and work till midnight. I was exhausted.” Finally, circumstances forced her hand. “My boss wanted to put me on track for a promotion, but it would have meant at least a month away from my family for special training,” she explains. “I couldn’t do it, but I couldn’t turn down a promotion either, so I just quit. It’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
Four years and another child later, Irvine, 38, is thriving. She now works out of her Toronto home as a speech writer and puts in as much time as she did in her old job. But they are hours of her own choosing, and that simple change has transformed her family life from a struggle to a joy. “I’m sane and my kids are happier,” she says. Unfortunately, most working parents can only envy Irvine her relative freedom. For too many young families, home life means breakfasts on the run and evenings flopped in front of the television. A wave of recent research, however, places new emphasis on the importance of children’s early years—a period that sets the pattern for success or failure later in life. And although experts are not suggesting that mothers’ rightful place is only in the kitchen, they are advising that both parents spend more time with their children. “Getting it right early in childhood is critical,” says Robert Armstrong, medical director at Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children in Vancouver. “But more families are in crisis. Many are not being supported enough to ensure that kids have the best chance at life.”
Social scientists have long known that children require a secure bond with at least one adult to develop strong self-esteem. But the new research— including reports for the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the Carnegie Corporation of New York City—has pinpointed the years between birth and age 3 as even more critical than was previously believed. It is during that period, when the nervous system is continuing to develop, that environmental influences can become hard-wired into a child’s emotional and intellectual makeup. High levels of stress, for instance, triggered by chronically
preoccupied parents or constant marital conflict, can leave infants with elevated blood levels of cortisone, a chemical that can inhibit brain development. On the other hand, positive stimulation promotes cell growth in the cerebral cortex, setting the stage for achievement in school and beyond. “Kids who grow up in an impoverished environment can end up with a different kind of brain,” notes Bryan Kolb, a professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. “It doesn’t matter how hard they work, they won’t be able to benefit from regular schooling.”
Researchers, including Kolb, hasten to add that there is help for such children. But according to Dan Keating, director of human development at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, “there is no remedy that can completely fix a bad start.” Yet it is often the parents of very young children who tend to have the most difficulty balancing the competing demands of children and employers. The majority of such parents fall within the ages of 25 to 34, when many people are struggling to establish themselves in the workplace. As a result, they may have less of the time and energy that children crave. “It’s not field trips and mountains of toys that young kids need,” Keating points out. ‘They want an interested adult who will get down on the floor and put a puzzle together with them. They get a lot of pleasure out of interactions with others.”
Davy Soeun, 33, and his wife Vanny Seak, 28, worry that they do not always have enough time for spontaneous play with their daughters, Malinda, 372, and Roseanna, 15 months. Soeun works as an accountant and Seak teaches new immigrants. She and her husband are both Cambodian refugees. Recently, Soeun lost one of his two jobs and is looking for full-time work. Seak has summers off, but that respite ends in the fall, when their daily grind will resume. On a typical workday, they leave their two-storey house in Port Coquitlam, east of Vancouver, around 7:30 a.m. and are seldom back before 6:30 p.m. “It’s frustrating,” Soeun acknowledges. “You just want to lie down on the couch and read a magazine or watch TV, but the kids are all over you. I think working two jobs a day would be less work than having kids.”
Experts in early childhood development are increasingly concerned about the time crunch parents face. Last spring, British psychologist and child care guru Penelope Leach called on employers and governments to put “children first.” Leach says that two working parents are not necessarily a bad thing. What is not good, she says, are employment and government policies that reward those without children and punish parents. “For the first time, having children is a disadvantage in the workplace,” she told Maclean’s. “Any woman who has a child in this culture stands to lose 50 per cent of her lifetime earnings, whether she takes time off or pays a sitter. Parents are feeling desperate, and we have to change that.” The first step, Leach and others say, should be recognition by employers and governments that mothers both need and want to work. Children are not damaged by having two working parents, they maintain, unless workplace burdens are overwhelm-
IlfjUi ¡ -, 1 Sil C Hours per week that, according to the Angus Reid poll, [till ! IIIYIL parents spend with their children doing selected activities:
Watching television* Playing sports or games Reading Taking kids to a lesson or meeting Helping with homework Teaching religious or spiritual beliefs
*Parents reported that their kids spend another .8 hours a week watching television on their own.
of respondents are dissatisfied with the amount of time they spend with their children. Of those,
41 per cent cite work pressures as the reason they do not spend more time.
of parents who work 20 hours a week or less say that they have been able to achieve a good balance between their jobs and time with their families. Only 36 per cent of those who work more than 40 hours a week say that they have a good balance.
of respondents in the labor force agree with the statement: “In my type of job, it is not possible to work less than I do and still get ahead.”
ing or high-quality child care is unavailable. In fact, a recent study conducted by sociologists at Ohio State University found that the children of mothers who worked at challenging jobs performed better academically than the children of mothers who quit such jobs to care for their children full time. The only caveat was the length of the workweek: the best outcome for children occurred when mothers in interesting jobs worked only 20 to 34 hours a week.
Such findings should not be surprising, according to Ellen Gee, a sociologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “The guilt of working mothers really aggravates me,” says Gee. “There is an amazing consistency in the research showing there is no negative effect of maternal employment on kids.” The problem, Gee explains, is that many workplaces are too rigid, largely because they are built on old models of the family, in which children were all but invisible. Flexibility is the key to successful change, Gee says: “One morning off a month doesn’t help much when kids get sick at 3:15 in the afternoon.”
Employed mothers seem predisposed to worry more about their children than do employed fathers, according to Lee Tidmarsh, a child psychiatrist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “Mothers can tell you what their child is doing at any time during the day with a fair degree of accuracy,” Tidmarsh said. That internal division can be very tiring, especially when a child has special needs. Single mother Kerri Matheson, 20, works between 20 and 40 hours a week as a nursing assistant in Glace Bay, N.S. Matheson’s two-year-old son Brian requires special care because of spina bifida, a defect of the spine. “He is doing great, but he’s a constant concern,” Matheson says. “I’m really tired all the time.”
PATRICIA CHISHOLM with ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver
Fatigue, stress and guilt are the tiresome trinity of parenthood in the 1990s. But parents, says Judith Martin, director of social services for the Saskatoon region, need to avoid becoming too preoccupied with these problems. While they work on reducing those pressures, they should also try to relax and enjoy their children. “Otherwise,” Martin says, “we are in danger of missing out on the fun and sense of community that families bring.” Above all, she adds, parents need to remember what they are doing it all for: the love of their children.
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