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  • Jia Rebecca Li, LMFT

Competing Devotions: Working with Families and Social "Norms"

Copyright 2024 Jia Rebecca Li Psychotherapy



The Competing Devotions for the Driven Parent:  The Impossible Tension of the Ideal Worker Norm and the Intense Parenting Norm

 

Many clients who come to see me for psychotherapy are parents or plan to become parents one day.  I also see children who are living in conflict and tension with their parents.  The stress and challenges of work and the stress and challenges of parenting are among the top reasons that bring people to therapy or later emerge to account for a significant portion of what is addressed in the therapy room.


My work is based in the SF bay area, and many of my clients are educated and driven in their career.  Parenting norms in general have shifted significantly in the last couple of decades, but the changes seem to be particularly striking for this population.  They often describe how they parent significantly differently from their parents or grandparents.  


Many of these parents are highly intentional parents.  By that, I mean not only do they clearly love their children and devote a lot of time to their children’s causes but also they are self-reflective, eager for feedback and are open to learning.


Many of them are first- or second- generation immigrants who are able to offer opportunities and experiences to their children that they didn’t have in their own childhood.


Yet they are clearly in distress.  Their families are clearly in distress.


Undervaluing Care


Over a decade ago (2012), Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the then most read article in the history of The Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”   I still remember how unexpectedly moved I was (tears streaming down my face!) when I read the part about her always pushing identical numbers, like 11 or 55, on the microwave in order to be time efficient [1].


I used to do the same, trying to multi-task and be more "efficient" in every big or small way. Even before I became a mom.


The article generated a firestorm of letters, feedback, praises, criticisms, and outcries.  Women reacted.  Men reacted.  Professor Slaughter listened, pondered, researched and studied.  A few years later, she wrote a follow-up book, “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family,” in which she shifted beyond the gender lens to focus on the closely related issue of the systemic “undervaluing of care” in this country. 


Slaughter argues that true equality in the workplace and at home can only be achieved by redefining the value of work and care.  For example, we need to create a more “flexible and humane” work environment to build a more equitable and fulfilling society for everyone.


If you are a working parent (mom or dad) who must juggle childcare and career, a teacher, or a healer of any kinds (doctors, nurses.  therapists, etc.), you KNOW – not by reading books but from your lived experience – that care is vastly undervalued in this country.


The Competing Devotions 


When system shapes our behaviors and beliefs over time, they become “norms,” and norms take root in culture.


In a powerful podcast episode “[T]he Deep Conflict Between Our Work and Parenting Ideals” from The New York Times’ Ezra Klein Show (March 22nd, 2024  Audio Link), Professor Caitlyn Collins discussed the tension between the “ideal worker norm” (a term coined by Joan Acker) and the “intensive parenting norm” in the United States. 


The term “ideal worker norm,” a term coined by sociologist Joan Acker in her influential work on gender and organization studies, reflects the expectations that adults today should be “fully committed and entirely devoted to their jobs and their employers – available at a moment’s notice, unencumbered by external responsibilities that might diminish from their ability to perform their jobs well.”


The term “intensive parenting norm” is about the perceived parenting “standard” where “child rearing should be time intensive, emotionally involved, and child-centered or child-focused, such that what it means to be a good mother is to be self-sacrificing, to devote yourself entirely to your children’s well-being and upbringing.”


Sociologist Mary Blair-Loy calls them “competing devotions.”


Remember the much gentler term we used to have that describes something similar? It was called “work/life balance.”  A “successful” person was expected to have the capability to “balance” these aspects of their lives, and if they couldn’t seem to do it, they’d better get on with developing that “capability.”


It seems like this magical “balance” is more and more out of reach.  And the further and further this ideal drifts away from us, the more and more guilt, shame, stress, frustration, anger and sadness sneaks in our homes.


Blair-Loy, in her book “Competing Devotions,” talks about the “moral weight” that adults in the U.S. — especially mothers — feel, which is that “they are unable to feel like they’re giving it their all in the workplace or giving it their all at home.


In the podcast, Collins cited a “fabulous study by Jennifer Glass and Robin Simon and Matthew Anderson” that has shown when comparing “the feelings of happiness for parents versus non-parents, that gap between parents and non-parents and their levels of happiness is widest in the U.S. of any Western industrialized country.”  The researchers of that study link this to the “most family hostile public policy” of any Western industrialized world.


Collins says, “[The] tension, the stress of trying to enact both norms simultaneously … [is] crushing American parents right now.”  It seems very true in many parts of this country.


Conversations in the Therapy Room 


“Competing devotions” is an all-too-familiar story in my therapy room.  It is the experience of not only for those who are the educated, “high functioning” parents, but also parents without higher education or the steady-paycheck jobs.  Relying on the sample size of my therapy clients, clients of my therapist colleagues, and my fellow parent friends, and without having done any social psychology studies, my gut felt belief is that this crushing tension is the reality of any working parent who wants to have a meaningful career but also wants to be the best parent they can.


As a couple therapist, I witness how often and how quickly the “couple” dimension in a family is the first to be thinned and squeezed out once the couple become parents. 

Even when the tension of this “competing devotion” is not directly talked about, the story almost always lurks in the background.


Many of us may not have even realized that this is where we are: we have been operating our lives from these places.  We have firmly placed ourselves in this deep, life-constraining hole, which at times, paradoxically, can feel like the lofty peak. 


But as Collins drives home the point: “It is categorically impossible to be an ideal worker and an ideal mother at the same time.  Abundant research has shown just how painful that tension is between the two norms.”


Acknowledging the systemic nature of this issue shifts the nature of our work.

While I have many, many tools to help resource parents and families so that they can better cope with the impact of “competing devotions,” I try to do my part to help them remember that they are not defective or failing (or worse, “bad” or “wrong”). The last thing we therapists or educators need to do is reactively judge parents for not spending enough time with their kids, not focusing on their kids enough, not focusing on the “right” stuff with their kids, not having done this or that with them, or other parenting “improvement.” 


In my experience, the vast majority of parents are truly doing the best they can, often at the price of letting go their own rest, joy, leisure, friendship or couple time.  They do not need to be judged; they need to be understood, listened to, and supported.  


It is always challenging to sit with clients who struggle, but I have learned to check my "caregiver" impulses to “talk them out” of these beliefs and difficult feelings.  They run deep and need the time, acknowledgement, and exploration they deserve.  They need us to make space for them in the therapy room.


Families can be helped to see how different members of their family operate on these beliefs in different ways and cope with these difficult experiences and feelings in different ways.  Psychologist Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse studied and wrote extensively about family members taking on different roles: One parent may be the “fixer” while another the “distancer” or “escaper,” and one child maybe the “family hero” while another maybe the “identified patient.”  Oftentimes, these family coping styles and “roles” tend to get more and more entrenched over time.


Culture, immigrations, and other systemic biases and injustices can weigh heavily in the mix. For example, many immigrants keenly feel both the "preciousness" and the fragility of the opportunities in their career as well as for their children, which didn't exist in their home country. This often exacerbates the weight of the "competing devotions."


But when parents can feel understood, supported and given space to safety explore, they will often notice the loud voices of the impossible “competing devotions” and how it talks us into unrealistic expectations, blame, guilt, shame, anger, resentment, etc.  They can start to recognize the systemic nature of the dilemma in which they find themselves.


It is from this newer, more compassionate place that we can start a different kind of “problem-solving” and collaboratively craft each family’s unique solutions for their unique situations. 


Challenging the Norm


I believe that knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way can be paradigm shifting.  This is an example of why comparative studies can be powerfully eye-opening and “norm” challenging.  Collins interviewed over a hundred (and talked to countless more) middle-class mothers across four countries – the U.S., Sweden, Italy and Germany – with different parenting cultures, public policies, and levels of social support.  For example:


In Sweden, “work makes way for family for everyone.  Not just workers, but managers, folks in the C-suite, also take time away from work to have — I don’t know, leisure pursuits, but primarily to spend time with their families.”  In the podcast, she talked about the mind-blowing social support system for parents in Sweden that has been developed over decades – of course, mind-blowing only to those of us who didn’t know otherwise.


Also in Sweden, the message of their public policies is that “child rearing is a collective responsibility that is a public good. It is in our collective best interest for children to be raised well.”


While I wish she had also included countries from Asia, Africa, South America, and the indigenous tribes, this is an important start, and I’m hopeful for more comprehensive studies in the future.  I particularly appreciate that one of the books she recommended at the end of the podcast – a little ritual of the Ezra Klein podcast that guests share three of their favorite books – is Dawn Dow’s “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood.”


I’m hopeful that more and more experts, policy makers, mothers, fathers, and educators will study, investigate and speak out loudly about the impossible “competing devotions.”  Meanwhile, those of us parents, caregivers, healers, and educators can remember to create a space of compassion for parents, to support each other and to connect, as perhaps little by little, the system and culture in this country can and will shift and change.


It is possible for families to find ways to play less of this impossible game.  But it’s harder to make this shift on your own, because this isn’t a one-person work.  It’s not a one-family work.  We need our tribes; and if we cannot readily find one, we get down to build them.  It’s easier and immensely more affirming to make changes by building communities of like-minded families.  This is also a message I offer to families, both in and outside of the therapy room.


References:


Acker, Joan (1990). Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations." Gender & Society, 4(2), 139-158.


Blair-Loy, Mary (2005).  Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives.  Harvard University Press


Collins, Caitlyn (2024).  Podcast transcript of “[T]he Deep Conflict Between Our Work and Parenting Ideals,”  The New York Times’ Ezra Klein Show (March 22nd, 2024  Audio Link)


Collins, Caitlyn (2019).  Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.”  HighBridge Company.


Slaughter, Anne-Marie (2012).  “Why Women Still Cannot Have It All?”  The Atlantic.


Slaughter, Anne-Marie (2015).  Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.   Random House


Wegscheider-Cruse, Sharon (1981).  Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family.  Science and Behavior Books.


[1] Professor Slaughter also happened to be my law school professor at the University of Chicago Law School, which launched my career in law that preceded the current one.  No doubt that this connection made her article even more touching for me.

 

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