More Than Money
Issue #36

Money and Work

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories: Surprised By Joy”

A Conversation with Diana Paolitto

Based on an Interview with Pamela Gerloff

Diana Paolitto, Ed.D, is a psychologist in the Wayland, Massachusetts public schools, and department chair for counseling and special education at Wayland Middle School. She is coauthor with Joseph Reimer and Richard Hersh, of the book Promoting Moral Growth: from Piaget to Kohlberg (Waveland Press, 1983). Dr. Paolitto has consulted and given workshops throughout the country on child and adolescent development, focusing on creating environments in families and schools that foster resilience in children.

When people ask me about the choices I've made around money, family, and work-specifically, my decision to resign from a tenured faculty position in the Department of Counseling Psychology at Boston College in order to take care of my children -they always frame it as a loss. They say, "What did you give up?" No one talks about the gain. But I don't think of it as having given up my career, as people often suggest. I think of it as having decided not to continue doing a particular kind of work so that I could balance my work and family. The result is that I've gained something that's forever.

C. S. Lewis titled one of his books Surprised by Joy . To me, that title captures the experience of child-rearing that our culture doesn't talk about. When I had my first child, someone said to me that it's the best-kept secret of parenting: the unbelievable joy of it-the pleasure of that relationship. Yes, it is also conflict, hard work, staying up at night, no sleep-but, to me, there is nothing more profoundly joyful than to watch a child unfold before your eyes. The challenge in our culture is to allow ourselves the pleasure of it.

When you have children, your whole life changes-especially your relationship with your spouse, your family of origin, and your community. I don't think people generally expect that. When it happens, the question becomes: Will you allow yourself to experience what that new role is like-and not only experience it, but integrate it into who you are? That integration can take a great deal of time.

When I had my eldest daughter, there was a woman in the hospital who gave birth to a son on the same day. We lived near each other, so we decided to get together after we were out of the hospital. I remember that this woman didn't skip a beat. The day after we left the hospital, she went and taught her creative writing class. As a psychologist who is interested in how people function, I asked myself, "How is this possible?" Here was this woman, with everything so new and so overwhelming, and there she was going right back to work and not skipping a beat. I think that's how it all begins: Either you let yourself skip a beat, or you say, "This baby is going to fit into my life as it currently exists." I don't think children fit into your current life; life changes dramatically, so you have to form a new life.

In our culture, when we are deciding how we will relate to work and family, the decision tree that is formed typically contains either/or choices: "Do I take care of my child or do I work outside the home?" "Is this child going to fit into our life or not?" I think a more productive way to frame these questions is to ask: "How is this child going to change our life, and how are we going to think about this and decide what to do?"

Family Anxiety Disorder
Psychologist Robert Evans, in his book Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing (Jossey-Bass, 2004), discusses what he has elsewhere termed "family anxiety disorder." A key idea is that, due to changes in American culture and lifestyle, parents are experiencing a widespread loss of confidence and competence in childrearing and so are increasingly anxious about their children's success, yet increasingly unable to support and guide them. Parents' anxiety is communicated unintentionally to their children, which increases the anxiety levels of the entire family, and other people and institutions outside the family (for example, schools) tend to be blamed for the feeling of helplessness that accompanies anxiety. The book discusses ways that schools and families can respectfully collaborate on behalf of children so that they don't unintentionally play out that anxiety against each other.

Part of the challenge around making the choices that present themselves when you have a child comes from the fact that society at large does not celebrate parenting. Have you ever heard adults at a party talk about the pleasure of watching their child learning to read? That's not allowed into the conversation. It's OK to talk about closing a million- dollar deal but not the joys of intimate connection with your children.

Society may not judge me as highly successful, and sometimes I do have some painful, conflicted, and resentful feelings about that. I know women who started out in professional circumstances similar to my own. Some of them commuted long distances and had their children in full-time daycare and in schools where they were cared for by others. Now they hold professional positions that our society considers prestigious. Looking back now, I do sometimes think, "I could have done that." There is a sadness there, a part of me that says, "That would have been fun." I would have been a 'most important person,' if you will. At the same time, I think, "I didn't lose my children in the process. I didn't end up getting a divorce." I wanted a more whole and balanced life.

So there is a loss, and I have had to bear the feelings and the conflict that come with that, but there is also a gain. Mydrives toward ambition, power, and achievement in the world didn't disappear, but the stronger force in me has been a drive toward integration. I never stayed home entirely, because I wanted to "keep my oar in the water," so to speak, in my work life. My dilemma was over the conflict I felt between nurturing my own intellect and curiosity and meeting the needs of my husband and children. I had a whole lifetime ahead of me in which I hoped to contribute to the larger community by using my intellect and educational background. The side that always won out for me was the importance of my family because, when my children were growing up, their needs were paramount for me, and also because I had a need to experience nurturing others in that way.

As women, we see ourselves in various roles: for example, as a woman in society, as a worker, a parent, a spouse, a daughter, a sibling. Different roles will predominate at different points in our lives, depending on our own needs and values. When my children were small and totally dependent, I saw my role as a mother as predominant. I had grown up in a large, nurturing family and experienced the benefits of that. I also know, as a psychologist, how important close, intimate relationships are for children's development. When other women would talk about careers and their priorities for themselves while I was staying up at night with sick children, I remember saying to myself, "Really? The only role of importance to me right now is being a parent."

Sometimes parenting feels like forever if you feel that you're setting aside meeting your own needs. But I believe children's needs do take priority. Of course, it takes a mature spouse to see that it is the role of both parents to focus on meeting the children's needs.

There was also a deeper dilemma for me that had to do with how to balance work and children in a society that gives very little of its resources over to that. We no longer have the support system that earlier cultures did, and we have not provided sufficient replacements, so the nuclear family often rears children in a vacuum.

Higher Instinct
It should be the adult's task to correspond to the needs of the immature creature in his care, to adapt himself to its necessities, and to renounce his own manner of action.

The higher animals instinctively do something of the sort, and adapt themselves to the conditions of their little ones. There is nothing more interesting than what happens when a baby elephant is brought by its mother into the herd. The great mass of huge animals slows its pace to the pace of the little one and when the little one is tired and stops, all stop.

From The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori (Sangam Books, Reprinted 2003)

I had no mother or in-laws nearby and no neighbors to help with care-giving. Sometimes we hired help; for example, when I was up at night with a sick child, a few times I needed someone to watch the children the next day while I took a nap. But whether you hire help or not, it can be an isolating and alienating experience when the rest of the world is going to work. I remember wheeling a baby carriage and watching the world rush by me as people hurried off to work at a frenetic pace, hauling their briefcases with coffee in tow. I would see no other women with children. I found I had to be a very strong, mature person to deal with the isolation and lack of support. I had to create a family-like network through friends and friendships.

Because parenting is not supported, valued, or rewarded in our society, it was an uphill battle to keep my own priorities and sense of worth in the forefront. It was also anxiety-producing. I felt anxiety about how I was going to meet my family's needs and still be somewhat active in the work world. I know that, at times, my children felt that anxiety, and it created an added stress in the family. The way I maintained my priorities and sense of balance was to listen to the voice within myself that said, "This is the most important thing right now." It wasn't easy, but at least for me the voice was strong; and I was able to strengthen it further by creating a personal and supportive network of friends.

I am so glad now that I spent the time I did with my children, caring for them and learning to know them as individuals. The connection I feel with my now-adult children is so strong. Some people think that if you can pay for someone to take care of your children, why not? But I say, wouldn't it be better to pay for someone to do the other things that need doing, so you can spend time parenting? Children need different things at different ages, and you only find out what those are by spending time with them. Dropping your children off at soccer practice is not the same as having their friends over to your house; when you're around while they're playing dress-up there is a whole different kind of intimacy that develops. Taking a walk with your children and seeing the world through their eyes is different from pushing them in a three-wheeled stroller so you can take your morning run. It's the difference between integrating your life into your children's lives versus taking your children along as an add-on to a preexisting life that will not stop for anything. It has become counter-cultural for us-both women and men-to make parenting a priority because we live in a product-oriented culture, and parenting is not a product, it's a process. Parenting is an in-the-moment relationship, and its rewards are internal, not external.


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