The Mental Health Place: Work and Motherhood: A Clinical Study
Posted Oct 07 2008 7:18pm
(Jennifer Stuart, Ph.D., puts a psychoanalytic lens on the issue of work and motherhood as it applies to personal history of the individual and unconscious conflict. This article appeared in The American Psychoanalyst and is reprinted with permission.)
Most women face real financial and practical obstacles to the integration of work and family life, and we encounter these challenges in a climate of cultural ambivalence toward working mothers. In this context, decisions about work and motherhood can become a lightning rod, attracting and concentrating expressions of unconscious conflict. Meanwhile, personal decisions about work and motherhood are easily rationalized in the global terms of public discourse (some popular texts offer rousing support for working mothers, while others urge full-time, at-home mothering for all who can afford it); so, the influences of personal history and unconscious conflict often go unnoticed.
As both a mother and a psychoanalyst with serious career commitments, I have had my own direct experience of “work-family conflict,” so I know just how much can lie underneath the visible tip of that iceberg. This, together with an interest in multiple case research methods, has led me to launch a psychoanalytically-informed clinical interview study, an inquiry into the impact of personal history and unconscious motives on the conscious experience of conflict between paid work and motherhood. With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program on the Workplace, Workforce, and Working Families, I have so far interviewed 65 women-–all 1984 graduates of a single, Ivy League college-–many of them two, three, or four times. Our conversations are modeled, as closely as each research participant allows, along the lines of a clinical consultation with the experience of conflict between motherhood and career as presenting complaint.
Though some women are conversant with the impact of personal history and psychology on their choices, some are quite surprised as previously unrecognized links between past and present, self and other (especially, self and mother) emerge. Though the interviews are not intended as clinical interventions, I have found that they sometimes have the degree of therapeutic impact that one might associate with a good, thorough consultation.
For example, one woman who gave up a career she enjoyed to home-school her children had explained the decision to herself in terms of religious values. However, inAcross a series of four interviews, I learned that her mother had had bouts of serious depression, especially after her birth, ; and she came to see that she risked repeating with her children some troubling elements of her own early experience. Though earnestly trying to be more available than her mother had been to her, she felt bereft of the “identity” that paid work brought and had become depressed herself.
Another woman in the study, at the start of an extended interview series, was working up to 80 hours per week with frequent travel; days might pass without her seeing either of her two children awake. Her job as a mother, she told me, was to be sure someone cared for them-–especially, that someone provided “challenges” adequate to their talents, so they would not get bored. I soon learned that as a child, this woman had been largely responsible for her immigrant family’s adaptation to life in the U.S. She was the first family member to learn English and the only one able to balance the books for her parents’ business. Her precocious achievement, her rising to challenges, was central to her family’s survival. As we spoke, --several times over many months, --she gradually made contact with the sadder aspects of her current experience. Ultimately, she took some time off from her job and was relieved to find that she very much enjoyed her children. At last word, she was planning a job change that would allow her to keep the career she loved but have some time for family life, as well.
As a psychoanalyst, my eye is always on the personal, the idiographic. But as a qualitative researcher, I also seek broader patterns and themes. Though small from the perspective of large-scale, quantitative research, my sample is large enough to support some general observations:
· Women vary tremendously in the ease or difficulty with which they navigate real obstacles to the integration of paid work and motherhood.
· Whether or not her mother worked outside the home has little impact on a woman’s comfort with choices around work and motherhood. Rather, her experience of comfort or conflict with her own choices is strongly influenced by the quality of her relationship with her mother.
· Women whose relationships with their mothers are troubled may find it difficult to thrive in any arrangement of work and family life. Conversely, women whose mothers fostered feelings of both warm attachment and confident autonomy may find ways to enjoy their children and/or work, often modifying work and family environments in ways that favor both. Work on this project has sharpened my appreciation of the complex interplay of broader social phenomena with individual psychology. Some careers are more easily mixed with family life than others. Some women have access to ample financial and social resources, including various forms of community support, --like the Pacella Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, --and others do not. But the murmur of the unconscious is always present, quietly instructing our choices from among the options realistically available as we decide whether, when, and how to combine work and motherhood.
Jennifer Stuart, Ph.D., is clinical assistant professor in the New York University Medical Center Department of Psychiatry and on faculty at NYU Psychoanalytic Institute. An early version report of her study, won the Karl A. Menninger Award at the APsaA Winter 2006 Meeting.