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What Do I Tell My Daughter About the Employment/Home Dilemma?

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Mother-daughter conversations may grow from toddler--"Yes/No!" with explanation--to elementary school age--"This is why, do you understand?"--to pre-teen sex talk--"Just listen but you do not have to say anything"--to teenager--"What were you thinking...Were you even thinking?"; and eventually to the adult--"These are my thoughts, what do you think?"

From my dissertation research (1994) and follow up study (2008) on 123 employed and at-home mothers, a seemingly simple question: "What do I tell my daughter about remaining employed or staying at home with the children when she becomes a parent?" revealed some interesting insights about adult mother-daughter communication.

My research shows mothers make work status decisions based on an assessment of their current situations--finances, health of all family members, education, spousal support; what they value. What is really important to them. And, finally, what they feel is best for them and their families.

Given how employment/home decisions are made, we really cannot tell our daughter what to do. Why? Because we do not actually know what goes on in another relationship nor do we really know about another situation. We only know what we observe--which tends to be subjective--and what we are told. Further, what our daughter identifies is important may be important to us. But maybe not. And, of course, we may agree with what our daughter thinks is best for her and her family. But maybe not. Our daughter is not us. She is a separate adult with different situations and probably some different values.

Some mothers in my study decided to stay at home with their children because their mothers were employed and they resented her absence. Other mothers chose to remain employed wanting to emulate their mothers who combined career and family. A daughter does not necessarily follow our path.

So can we still have a mother-daughter conversation? Yes. We can share the thinking we did regarding our employment/home decisions. We can show our respect for them by honestly discussing the issues we considered, how we weighed them, how they may have changed over time, and even that, in retrospect, we may have wished we had chosen differently in some instances. Anything we say to our daughter must be consistent with how we really feel about the employment/home paths we have chosen for ourselves. Our daughter is not only a good listener; she is an excellent observer of our behaviors and feelings. If she senses that we are saying what is "PC" or what we say to outsiders rather than what we think and feel, she may well dismiss us and the conversation.

We best acknowledge that the world has changed since we were making our work status decisions. For instance, there are many more professional women in the workforce, there is an increased opportunity to work from home or job share, and we have the ability to easily connect with home or the office through technology. However, although all these changes alter employment experiences, a mother still has to review the fundamental tradeoffs--the emotional and physical pull many employed mothers experienced--when choosing a road to follow. The decision is a personal one belonging to the new mother; not to us.

Deborah A. Kahn's new book is The Roads Taken: Complex Lives of Employed and At-Home Mothers published by Miniver Press.