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It is very loud in the second-floor meeting room of a public library in a medium-size eastern city, the noise coming from twelve toddlers, all under the age of four, running around the room. At this meeting of the local NAMC chapter, eleven group members have put their chairs in a circle in preparation for the upcoming discussion. Strollers line the wall, toys litter the floor, and the kids have discovered a new game consisting of how much trouble they can cause by turning the meeting room’s lights on and off.

As the mothers struggle to intervene and maintain some order, the NAMC chapter leader starts the meeting by reminding her members that they have been focusing on safety issues over the past several months. At the last meeting, they discussed how to approach the topic of “stranger danger” with their children. This month’s topic is fire safety, and a local firefighter has come to answer the members’ questions about keeping their families safe in the event of a fire or medical emergency. In this particular NAMC chapter, most of the mothers now stay at home, following a period when they worked for pay. Later in the meeting, several describe the stressful jobs they used to hold, which had no workplace flexibility options, making life very difficult for them. Despite such problems, they also point to the conflict they experience now that they remain at home. In their comments they reflect on the changes they have gone through. 

NAMC Member 1: I [used to be] a guidance counselor for over eight hundred students living in the inner city. [I worked so hard and had no flexibility, but I loved it]. When I had a child of my own [and left paid work], I had to rediscover who I was and the group gave me support. I needed support in my role as a caretaker. I was lost. I didn’t know where I began and where I ended when I had kids. When I became a mother, I became more humble.

NAMC Member 2: I was an agent who represented photographers in New York City. I was mothering my career. It brought me confidence and money. But when I had a kid, I was leaving my kid every day [at day care and there was no way around it with my inflexible job]. Coming to the Mothers’ Center has helped me. Conflict exists with the modern family. The group is like therapy. I operated very highly in my career. Mothering helped me realize I was too type A. It helped me negotiate that and now [to focus my old work energies and talents toward the idea that] my kid is my new job. I can research this job just like I researched my new clients. My son is my career. You are going to have bad and good days. This group grounds me.

The two mothers at the NAMC meeting are clearly not alone in representing the complicated issues facing American families today. Both described the rewards they experienced while working full time at satisfying careers that they truly loved. Interestingly, however, both noted that their jobs were extremely inflexible. There was no way to get around the nonstop demands of their employers, co-workers and clients. After they had their children, through a process of careful consideration, they decided to remain at home. Yet they were confused by their new lives. In many ways they gradually adjusted, but they were left wondering if there could have been other ways for them to combine their passion for their careers with raising their children at the same time.

These two NAMC members chose to leave their paid jobs and, fortunately, were able to make ends meet after doing so. Many mothers who work for pay, however, either do not want to quit or cannot do so. These mothers face a variety of stresses in terms of the daily tasks required of them. The bulk of the stresses have to do with these mothers’ multiple roles and how they are expected to perfectly meet the needs of these roles. The first type of challenge relates to role conflict. For mothers, this conflict emerges when the demands of their paid employment directly interfere with their familial and caregiving responsibilities. Role conflict is especially difficult because there is seemingly no way out of its pressures; that is, by definition, this conundrum means that two or more sets of obligations are competing for attention during the same time block.1

The second issue that mothers face is role overload.2 Role overload relates to the mothers’ perceptions that the demands placed on them cumulatively are simply impossible to fulfill. Unlike role conflict, which emphasizes that stress occurs because two different sets of tasks are competing for the same period of time, role overload occurs when the magnitude of tasks is simply too overwhelming to complete in any given time period. As individuals struggle to execute these tasks, they may feel as if they are unable to do any of them adequately. The daily grind, then, simply becomes an exercise in frustrating futility.3 *

This is an excerpt from the great forthcoming book written by my friend and colleague, Jocelyn Crowley, Ph.D.,  a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She studies families, public policy and motherhood, and has written a wonderful book about mothers’ experience and activism called Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life. The NAMC and its members figure prominently in this work, which you will want for your very own – you can preorder it here —– and ask for it for Mother’s Day. Its release date is June 4, 2013.  If you are an NAMC member, watch for a special 30% discount in a future issue of the NAMC eNewsletter.

I’ll interview her in an upcoming post – so stay tuned, and order that book now!

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

Click here to read more posts from Your (Wo)manInWashington blog.

1. Laura M. Hecht, “Role Conflict and Role Overload: Different Concepts, Different Consequences,” Sociological Inquiry 71, no. 1 (2001): 111–21; Carol J. Erdwins, Louis C. Buffardi, Wendy J. Casper, and Alison S. O’Brien, “The Relationship of Women’s Role Strain to Social Support, Role Satisfaction, and Self-Efficacy,” Family Relations 50, no. 3 (2001): 230–38; Esther R. Greenglass, Kaye-Lee Pantony, and Ronald J. Burke, “A Gender-Role Perspective on Role Conflict, Work Stress, and Social Support,” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 3, no. 4 (1988): 317–28.

2. Hecht, “Role Conflict and Role Overload”; Faye J. Crosby, Juggling (New York: Free Press, 1991).

3. An opposing point of view, however, argues that individuals benefit greatly from holding multiple roles with respect to a positive self-identity, purpose, and meaning in life. See Peggy A. Thoits, “Personal Agency in the Accumulation of Multiple Role-Identities,” in Advances in Identity Theory and Research , ed. P. J. Burke, T. J. Owens, R. Serpe and P. A. Thoits (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2003). In addition, while perhaps experiencing role conflict and role overload, employed mothers generally have higher rates of mental health than stay-at-home mothers. See Rebekah Levine Coley, Brenda J. Lohman, Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, Laura D. Pittman, and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, “Maternal Functioning, Time, and Money: The World of Work and Welfare,” Children and Youth Services 29, no. 6 (2007): 721–41. See also Cheryl Buehler and Marion O’Brien, “Mothers’ Part-Time Employment: Associations with Mother and Family Well-Being,” Journal of Family Psychology 25, no. 6 (2011): 895–906.

*Copyright 2013 by Cornell University Press.  Used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.

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