What is best for families?
Thirty-five years ago, my husband and I attended a weekend retreat for engaged couples, a prerequisite for getting married in our church. A total of 23 couples participated in the event at a cozy sanctuary in the woods. Veteran married couples led the weekend’s activities, which included lecture, discussion, couple reflection time and worship.
When the retreat commenced on that Friday, we were introduced to a decorated box with an opening on top. We were encouraged to jot down and submit topics for discussion over wine and cheese the next evening.
After a sumptuous candlelight dinner on Saturday, all the couples and the leaders moved to a room with comfy cushions scattered on the floor. A fire gently burned in the fireplace, and we all settled down with a post-meal glass of wine. One of the retreat leaders held the box full of note cards in her lap. She bore an expression of concern and let out a sigh before she spoke.
“This afternoon, we (the leadership team) looked at all your suggestions for discussion topics for this evening. We noticed that there were a number of cards with things like ‘dual-career marriages’ and ‘working moms’ written on them. This troubled us.”
My own fiancé winced. My nails had begun to dig through his shirt and into his flesh. Personally, there is no other topic that raises my dander like this one. I released my grip and resolved to be open-minded and not create a scene. I listened to what was mostly a view on the issue quite different from my own. A colleague once encouraged me to purposely read or listen to someone whose perspective on something was in stark contrast to my own. I decided this was my opportunity to take him up on the offer.
There was discussion on both sides of this issue, most of the young couples expressing the economic need for two incomes. The other perspective was that couples ought to live on tight budgets so that one parent can stay home.
The rap session concluded with the understanding that making decisions about dual-career marriages and working parents be taken seriously. Do what is best for your family, but don’t get caught up with providing a lot of material things for your children at the expense of spending time with them. The prevailing sense from the leaders was that our families would be stronger if we adopted a more traditional approach to raising our children.
Fast forward 35 years, three adult children and a 37-year career — I must admit, it wasn’t always easy. It would indeed have been simpler had we divided our roles traditionally and rigidly. But we didn’t for a number of reasons. And even in spite of two incomes, our children didn’t have every new and shiny gadget on the market.
Over the years, I ran into several of the couples who attended the weekend retreat with us back in 1983. For the most part, both of the partners worked outside the home, some having taken brief interludes when their children were born, some in full-blown careers where they had to juggle travel and scheduling. But it worked for all of them! The couples I met up with were still married and raising successful children.
There is a plethora of research on the benefits of having one parent home vs. having substitute care for children of working parents. There are pros and cons of both sides. Studies support the benefits to children when they are in high-quality early-learning programs, yet these are often financially draining for many families. There are also tons of opinions out there about what is “best” for children and families.
What if the benchmark is simply this: Do what works to keep your family happy, healthy and thriving.
There is no one answer or formula for how to do this. There wasn’t one 35 years ago, and there is not one now. What we do know is that when children grow up in homes where their basic needs are met, they have loving consistent caregivers and they live in safe environments, children thrive.
Editor’s note: Denise Continenza is the family and consumer sciences educator with Penn State Extension, Lehigh and Northampton counties.