Heffner column: Mothers in need of a King Solomon
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
A bible story tells of King Solomon. Asked to decide on a conflict between two women each claiming to be the mother of the same child, he suggested splitting the child in two giving each woman half. Thereupon one woman protested, saying the child should be awarded to the other rather than being destroyed. Solomon proclaimed her the true mother, more concerned about the plight of the child than herself.
Mothers today are in need of a Solomon to make the decisions confronting them in the choices they are being asked to make between their children and themselves. As the pandemic continues to ravage the economy while threatening health, the pressure increases for children to return to school, both for their own needs and so that mothers can return to work.
There are competing issues at work here but underlying all is the question of whether a mother is willing to risk the health of her child by sending him to school in face of the potential for contagion. School boards across the country are searching for ways to address that risk by devising plans for split schedules combined with remote online teaching.
Such an approach, alternating school attendance with weeks at home, while barely meeting the educational needs of children also does not allow for parents back at work as the economy reopens. As one mother writes, “In the COVID-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”
The current crisis highlights an ongoing issue that has never been adequately confronted. Since mothers have entered the workforce in significant numbers, the question of childcare has been caught in the culture war about the role of women and the traditional obligation of mothers to care for their children. Providing care for large numbers of children requires some form of group childcare such as currently existing daycare. This has been challenged as threatening the traditional pattern of family care.
Apart from a never-ending controversy about the importance of mother care as contrasted to group care, the cost of “quality care,” meaning a high adult to child ratio and well trained child care teachers, requires government funding in some measure. This has added fuel to the conflict over the government’s role in education and child-rearing.
The cost of day care centers that currently exist has been prohibitive for many families or of questionable quality. The reality for many mothers working out of the home has been a patched-up system of child care involving family members for those fortunate or a random system of part time caregivers employed in the home.
For some mothers who now are self-employed, working at jobs while at home, the current situation of fathers and children at home while increasing the stress level has also afforded an opportunity for sharing of child care and household responsibility. As businesses plan to reopen, the repercussions on families with school-age children is untenable.
The economic fall out of the pandemic has put a spotlight on the pervasive unspoken assumption that child care is primarily a mother’s responsibility. If fathers are called back to work it is the mother who is expected to care for the children without reference to her employment or the family reliance on her income.
Within all the issues raised by the pressure to open schools so that parents can return to work, a basic unanswered question is what the quality of education will be under the reopening conditions currently being considered. And even within those conditions, how safe will it be to send children to school?
No King Solomon has yet appeared to answer these questions.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.