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Pressure and The Modern Day Mom

Today, the role dads play in their children's lives is directly affected by shifts in the way moms view themselves, their work, their kids, and their marriages. Peggy Orenstein documents women's deepest thoughts in her book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World. She talked to Parenting about how family life is evolving:

Q. Why is family life so different these days?

A. We've gone from the women's liberation of the 1970s to the backlash of the 1980s to whiplash. Women are told we have a lot of choices, but what we really have are tough trade-offs. Employers haven't altered the work culture to accommodate parents' changing roles. And deep within a woman's psyche is still this idea that part of being a good mother is micromanaging the family.

Q. How can moms stop micromanaging?

A. They need to stop feeling like everything is a reflection on them. I was at a friend's house for Thanksgiving, and her 2-year-old daughter came out of the bedroom wearing an admittedly odd outfit. My friend said, "Looks like Daddy dressed her today," and then they disappeared. A little later her daughter had on a nice dress. My friend couldn't help herself. But moms need to bite their tongue if, say, their kid's clothing doesn't match.

Q. Why do many women tend to berate themselves for being bad mothers?

A. Usually because they feel like they do less than their own mothers did. Meanwhile, men feel like better fathers  -- because they do more than their own fathers did. But that sets the bar too low. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild said, "Men shouldn't be comparing themselves to their dads but to their wives."

Q. Do stay-at-home moms have it any easier?

A. They sometimes feel even greater pressure to be perfect. A mom who's always with the kids may view them as her only measure of success, so she goes above and beyond (the call of duty). She may also find it hard to make demands on her spouse, in terms of sharing childcare tasks and chores, because he "works." But you have to discuss whether you're going to be partners in raising kids  -- or just a single mom with a husband.

Q. Were any women you interviewed happy with their family's balance of power?

A. The women who seemed the most satisfied were those who earned as much or more than their spouses, and those whose partners had flexible jobs or who were self-employed. That slight push against tradition, or outright role reversal, evidently encouraged men to assume more responsibility at home. The moms were happier, the family life ran more smoothly, and the dads seemed more connected to their kids.

Q. How can moms get dads involved?

A. By letting dads spend time alone with their children from the beginning. If you're nursing, express milk, get out of the house, and leave your husband alone with the baby. When the baby cries while he's holding her, don't take her. Let him figure it out. Early on, it may feel good to be the only one who can calm the baby down, but if you start out this way, be prepared to still assume all the responsibility when the kid is 10.

Q. What if dads are hesitant to help out?

A. Certainly there are men who purposefully get out of doing their share. They're capable, just not willing. But if your spouse does something wrong in childcare (like forgetting to pick up the kids at softball practice), don't just let him off the hook. Swallowing your own resentment will have a profound impact on the quality of your marriage  -- and the relationship you both have with your kids.

Q. How can society encourage dads to play a greater role?

A. There needs to be government-mandated paternity leave. Studies have shown that men who take paternity leave develop a closer connection to their kids than those who don't. Ultimately, family life will become less stressful. Dads who share childcare responsibilities tend to feel more positive about their wives' employment, and their wives are happier.

Q. What do you ultimately wish for moms?

A. That they challenge their own assumptions about motherhood, and they figure out how to build more satisfying lives. It's easy to get absorbed in the moment, and then look up 10 or 20 years later, and say, wait, this isn't where I meant to be.