Conversation with Diana Paolitto
on an Interview with Pamela Gerloff
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
Moral Growth: from Piaget to Kohlberg
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.
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
Lewis titled one of his books
Surprised by Joy
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.
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.
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.
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?"
Psychologist Robert Evans, in his book
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
so glad now that I spent the time I did with my children,
caring for them and learning to know them as individuals.
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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