Our Co-workers: Other Parents

Co-workers in many jobs have regular opportunities to talk together and problem solve about their work. How can we do the same with our work as parents?

We were talking about parental stress. What do you do when you’re ready to kill the children? How do you deal with the incidents when your feelings have been deeply hurt, when your grown child has made a decision that you know is the wrong one? How do you debrief and recover from your last day in order to start the next one (relatively) fresh?

A tool that has always been important to me is listening. If I can find someone who will agree to listen as I tell my story--and rage about it or cry about it--I can clear out my thinking, remember what’s true about myself and the world around me (and remember not just intellectually, but in my gut) then I’m refreshed and ready for tomorrow. We had been doing a lot of focused listening in this group and others commented on its value for parents, but one woman’s comment put it in a much larger perspective.

“When I was in the homeless shelter,” she said, “I did a lot of listening. We talked together all the time about our children, about the stresses of the day, about the challenges we were facing. When I left, most of us were still on welfare, home with the kids, and we would check in on the phone, every day sometimes. There was always somebody to tell your troubles to. Now most of us are back at work. We promise to stay in touch, but we don’t--just call at Christmas-time, maybe. I don’t have anybody to talk to like that anymore. I really miss it.”

I’d never thought of a homeless shelter serving the same function as the back fence or kitchen table of the fifties--a place where mothers could find each other to talk about their work and their days--but somehow it’s not surprising. And how ironic that the move from a shelter to gainful employment should carry such a cost.

It highlighted for me the price we pay by excluding child raising from the arena of gainful employment. People need a time and place to talk with their co-workers, their colleagues, their peers, about their common work. The business community knows this. They regularly build staff meetings and team meetings and brainstorming sessions and goals groups and trainings and retreats and evaluation sessions into their work weeks.

Parents in the workforce, however, are shortchanged left and right. They have to squeeze the job of raising the next generation into weekends and evenings, and in so doing are deprived of the regular dependable contexts that everyone engaged in people-oriented work needs to process, debrief, evaluate, learn, strategize and grow. Expecting us to do without is cruel and unusual punishment. Expecting us to flourish under these conditions is simple unreal.

This is not to say that we don’t do well. Parents are an amazingly resourceful and resilient group, finding time and energy and strength in the narrowest places, the smallest moments and the least hospitable ground. We do a remarkable job under these difficult circumstances. But we surely deserve more. One way of taking positive action in the face of this situation is to never forget that we are parents, to invite each other to talk about this work whenever we find an opportunity. Whether it’s on the bus, in the lunch room, at the water cooler, in the gym, in the bank line, after church, we can remember to ask how things are going with the children. And we can listen.