Work and family? A balancing act

Christoph Meinecke

Her husband also works full-time. They are short of nothing; when the couple go on holiday they travel and discover the world. They share common interests, but each one also cultivates their own hobbies and circle of friends. They are seen as a modern and successful couple. Then there comes a point when discontent begins to arise, including a certain pressure from the extended family: isn’t it time for children? True, they’re also part of it!

Louis is born. The pregnancy proceeds normally, all possible tests are done to avoid any unpleasant surprises. A place in the nursery is booked. The birth is beautiful, if exhausting and long, as often happens the first time.

Breast feeding is difficult and painful, the child screams. And yet the plan was that this period should be a time of harmony and recuperation, a successful time out as it were. Instead of recovery there is merely stress.

Gradually things improve. The lack of sleep increases but the new parents are surprised at how well they cope with everything. The father only stopped work for three weeks of leave.

After six months the mother has largely stopped breastfeeding and the child is put into a nursery – initially for four, then six and finally nine hours. The mother starts looking forward to her job again. She quickly wanted to return to full-time work. Family and work – why should there be a conflict?

So Louis stays at the nursery all day. And when his mother has some time off she uses it for errands, her hobbies and to see friends. Louis is quiet and undemanding in nursery, “easy to look after”. He sleeps most of the time.

At home he is the opposite. Everything seems to upset him. When he is being fed, he arches his back and turns his head away. When his nappy is being changed, he screams. In the evening, he often has to be carried for hours until he falls into an exhausted sleep. He then has to be put down very gently because he will otherwise immediately start screaming again.

At 14 months the first sleep phase still only lasts barely 90 minutes. This is followed by the mother breast feeding him until both of them drift off into sleep, only for the pattern to repeat itself after 90 minutes the whole  night long.

Mornings are always a rush! The alarm clock goes off too early for everyone when they have only just fallen into a deep sleep. The 20-minute drive through the rush hour to the nursery becomes torture with Louis mostly screaming all the way.

At the nursery he is handed to the affectionate carer. He screams as he does every day, nothing has changed there from the familiarisation period. He clings to his mother, arches his back and retches. The carer tries to make it clear to the mother in a kind but firm way that the child needs a clear signal of from her that she is leaving. This continues until he is 18 months old.

There are repeated visits to the doctor because of suspected neck problems, trapped wind, allergies – there has to be some reason for Louis’ agitation. But there is nothing, he is as healthy as could be, just stressed and unhappy.

His father has already removed himself from the common bedroom – to survive, as he puts it. And his mother? Happy in her job, successful, popular, admired for her strength in being able to cope with a child and a job, and – unhappy, stressed, in despair.

“What do you really want,” the paediatrician asks her. “That Louis is more even-tempered and happier, that we finally find a treatment for him that works …” – “What do you really want?”

Suddenly it hits her, her breathing falters, then her eyes fill with tears; she cannot believe that she has not realised it before. Now it all bursts out, uncontrollably and without restraint! Simply live, simply be a mother. A tear comes to the eye even of the doctor while Louis has fallen asleep on his mother’s arm. She is a woman of action. She has made her decision and on that same day still applies for parental leave.

Two months later Louis and his mother visit the doctor again. A transformed child, a transformed mother. The symptoms of stress have disappeared. Both of them look happy and content. An extreme example? Maybe. But nevertheless true and not uncommon in everyday practice!

Family means relationship

From a medical perspective we can say with great certainty that an infant under three or four years old does not need any educational institution but merely a familial environment with regular contact with the primary caregiver. To begin with this is mostly the physical mother; we fathers come second in line – if we are still then around for the child – towards the end of the first, start of the second year of life. Siblings and grandparents are additionally included in parallel and successively.

Not until the fourth year of life does the child open themselves to relationships outside the family. Healthy bonding behaviour arises when the child experiences protection and security with the primary caregivers, that is in the family, when they find an environment which can meet their needs.

Here an important basic principle is revealed which can also help to find the right work-family balance as the child grows older: it is not the child who should fulfil the needs of adults or, indeed, educational institutions but the opposite is the case. If this naturally given intergenerational contract, which represents a facet of the so-called law of pedagogy, is maintained, then this has a sustained and positive effect on the physical and mental health of the human being in later life. The person who has experienced secure ties in the family will go through life in a healthier and more satisfied way.

No professional distance

On the other hand children are generally generous and always willing to adapt if the life (forces) situation of the family makes this necessary. But to do so they need clear signals and an assured attitude from the adults with regard to this necessity. Because the child thrives out of the life forces of the family, it is immersed in them and can sensitively perceive the state of the family’s life forces. If there are deficiencies, the child expresses it through becoming unwell.

What, then, happens if it is necessary for someone outside the family to look after the child in early childhood because otherwise the existence of the family would be under threat? Not all families are in a position to stop working for a while like Angelika Seifert did. What then?

Here experience shows that early outside care is all the more successful the smaller the group is and the more the child experiences it as belonging to the family. This can, as a rule, be more easily done by qualified childminders than by institutions. Because a key part is that the carer should be seen to be a friend of the family. This can express itself through the parents staying a while when bringing or collecting the child, through having a meal together, a joint celebration or being together without a specific purpose. Professional distance is precisely what is not required here but a relationship.

Nursery groups in educational institutions often find it more difficult to muster this quality, something which can negatively affect the child’s development in the long term. Outside care should only last as long as is absolutely necessary to meet the necessities of life of the family organism.

If it is necessary for both parents to work at the same time on three days a week, then the child should only be looked after by a carer on those three days. If outside care is only necessary until 12 o’clock, then it should not last longer than that.

The important thing, then, is that the real situation is always adjusted to the family’s needs. In this way outside care has a less damaging effect, the happiness of the family is significantly higher and the work-family balance remains healthier.

Don’t complain in front of the children

The family can keep work in balance if it can provide relationship, a feeling of togetherness, physical closeness, secure attachment, protection, free space and relaxation. Here it helps significantly if we as parents cultivate our relationship as a couple irrespective of everything else. Because the couple relationship of the parents provides the basis, the foundation of the family. Its stability has a proven preventive effect on the health of the family as a whole and its individual members.

The same applies at later kindergarten age. As the child progresses through the pre-school period, kindergarten increasingly takes on the character of a place of learning with which they ideally build up an increasingly intimate relationship as their individual place of learning. But here, too, the following applies: the focus must be on the wellbeing of the child.

The state of the family and what it needs is therefore more important than the interests of the nursery institution. Days when we take a break from the latter, which children mostly love, can be helpful and are wonderfully suited to strengthening interfamilial attachments.

On the other hand it is also important for children to feel that they can give themselves over to kindergarten with their whole being without having to worry about their parents while they are separated from them. Here, too, the following applies: the family is healthier when the children can have confidence that we parents take care of the things that matter to us, that we look after ourselves, our own happiness in life and health well.

That means, for example, not complaining about work in front of the children if possible, not carrying a bad conscience around with us or indeed telling the children about it. These are adult subjects which parents should discuss between one another with sympathy and in partnership, but not in front of the children who are unsettled by it and not infrequently develop guilt feelings themselves.

It is also important that we should not demand that children make allowances for our work. We learn to be considerate within the family system – towards everyone. But not towards an abstract requirement. We as parents are also allowed to express our needs.

That is done best with an I-statement: “I want to lie down now because I need to rest for a bit.” The child will learn to respect that.

“Can’t you leave me alone? I need to rest now because all my hard work has made me tired. You have to be considerate. If you don’t let me recover I will become ill and won’t be able to look after you.” Here the child will feel encumbered with responsibility for the parent. Feelings of guilt and anxiety are likely to arise.

At school age the danger arises that the burden of obligatory activities increases in the everyday life of the family in that the parents also want to monitor the progress of their child in school and be involved in it – or they think that they should due to social pressure.

If we look at school obligations as work, then here, too, it is a matter of finding the right work-family balance. In other words, it is important to create time and space which is free from the pressure to perform and in which the joy in life and being together can come to expression.

If necessary, school work could also be relocated completely outside the home. It is often experienced as having a wonderful effect on a positive attitude towards life at home if during the week most of the so-called homework – which would better be called “own work” – could already be done in school or after-school care.

Employers must show consideration

What the family continues to need more of, is understanding from employers. Sixty-two percent of parents in Germany complain that work and family are difficult to reconcile in their workplace (pronovaBKK: Junge Familie 2015, September 2015). Flexible working hours, job sharing, part-time work, life phase oriented working with long-term working hours accounts, working from home, company kindergartens, childcare in the holidays and financial contributions for childcare are on the wish list of many parents. Current studies show that there is still considerable potential and backlog here (cf. A.T. Kearney family study: Vereinbarkeit wagen, Düsseldorf 2015).

Here the basic attitude of managers is of primary importance. When I started to work in a well-known anthroposophical hospital 26 years ago and our first daughter was born, it was taken for granted that the wives would “cover the back” of the doctors. Leaving work on time to look after the children was frowned upon. Our wives went on the barricades and wrote a stiff letter to the management group.

Today the roles in the family are no longer so strictly defined. It is true that in most cases the husband remains the main earner and the wife does the majority of the unpaid work at home. But the burden is often better distributed; the trend is that work and family as well as domestic tasks are seen in many families as being equal.

Thus everyone covers everyone else’s back and self-realisation is no longer sought only through work but by both genders in a healthy combination of work and family. It fits in with this that contrary to expectation the birth rate in Germany is rising again (source: Federal Statistical Office, December 2015). The desire for children is also on the increase. But here the point at which this happens is moving backwards, often to the far side of 30.

In total, only 41 percent say that children are an important aspect in their lives. A harmonious partnership at 73 percent and a proper work-life balance at 56 percent lie ahead of it. But affluence and career trail far behind in the bottom places (Forsa Institute commissioned by Eltern: “Ansprüche ans Elternsein”, January 2016). So actually there is a positive picture.

Socially the appreciation of the family is increasing. Here the acceptance of alternative forms of family such as patchwork families or same-sex parents is also rising.

Family is worth it

Compared to childless couples, parents currently have a considerably higher workload with an additional ten hours per person per week on average. But when I ask families in my practice and among my family and friends they confirm the general experience: hardly anyone regrets having started a family.

Indeed, people are as a rule surprised about what they learn to cope with when they raise children – and the potential for experience and development it contains.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Meinecke, specialist in paediatric medicine, psychotherapy, anthroposophical medicine (GAÄD); has his own practice and works in neonatal services at the Havelhöhe community hospital in Berlin; father of five children, co-founder and co-director of the Havelhöhe Family Forum, member of the executive council of Emmi-Pikler-Haus e.V.