No answers, only questions

A single mother struggles with guilt, sadness and conflicting priorities. Dr. Diller says set limits, show your love -- and don't worry too much.

Published February 12, 2003 8:20PM (EST)

Dear Dr. Diller,

I have the most wonderful little almost-4-year-old boy in the world. Anything good that one can say about a child, I can say about Joey. Although quite high-spirited and rowdy, he is a delight, and I enjoy my time with him so much -- but we don't have enough time together.

I have a great job in a creative field with wonderful colleagues and more freedom and flexibility than most corporate jobs offer. But I'm just doing it for the money now, and I realize I'd rather be a housewife and full-time mother and do the things I pay a very nice preschool to do. The problem is that, as a single mother, I have only so much control over the future. If I don't get married to someone who can help with support, I will have to go on working full time, being solely responsible for our financial well-being. (Joey's dad is a musician and contributes to a college savings fund.)

I feel guilty that I didn't order my life differently -- I was always discouraged from marrying or even really getting very involved with boys and men. My mother stressed independence, which is good -- I'm glad I can care for myself and my child -- but I'm about to turn 41 and am very anxious and sad to think of having no more children.

My little boy seems fine; he doesn't seem to be suffering as a result of having a working mom. But what can I do about my own guilt and sadness? How can I work toward cheerfully accepting that this is my life when what I want is to marry a wonderful man and somehow acquire another child or two? I do know that I am an excellent mother, and I find parenting to be more creative and challenging than any project I've had in advertising or television.

My child does have a great father-son relationship; and I'm dating, which at 40, with a baby, is just so silly. But forgive this long ramble; I guess I'm writing for help with the terrible feelings of regret and guilt that I have, and advice about my predicament.


Ah, Michelle. You raise such fundamental questions about choice, life, fate and responsibility. I hope you are sophisticated and sensitive enough to know that I have no specific answers for your guilt and sadness. To offer you a "solution" would be to trivialize your understandable reactions to some core dilemmas of life. But let me share with you and other Salon readers some of my reactions to your letter.

I have not forgotten that Second Opinions is a pediatric advice column, but let me begin with the broad view for some of your more philosophical dilemmas. My first thought is of Hillel, a rabbi from the first century after Jesus who sought to offer a concise summary of our existential issues with our humanness. He had an uncanny ability to reduce chapters of philosophical and ethical discussion to one- or two-sentence aphorisms -- a quality my editor is always asking of me.

Hillel neatly addresses your questions with three questions of his own (apparently even in the second century, rabbis were using the same psychological techniques that therapists are taught today: When you get a hard question, answer it with a question; but I digress). They were: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" "If I am only for myself, what am I?" and "If not now -- when?"

You lament over the choices you've made in your life about your young son and what you can offer him now. You are conflicted over your need and desire to work, and your wish to spend more time with him. You regret the breakup of your marriage and wish that you could have foreseen the future when you chose his father as your spouse. These are not questions that require pediatric expertise as much as personal reflection. Perhaps Hillel's questions would be helpful to ask yourself as you try to balance what's best for you versus the needs of others. Also, implicit in Hillel's queries is the challenge -- which you might need -- to not simply sit around and think about your choices but to take action to resolve your dilemmas.

For my part, I would remind you that our choices are influenced by our talents, temperament, family upbringing and culture. We are not the sole instruments of choice; we also are affected by the people around us. A child obviously needs more from his parents and the people around them. Certain children, by virtue of their health, personality or development, call for more at various times in their lives (for example, a child with a serious health problem, like cerebral palsy, or a developmental delay, like Down syndrome, or for that matter a child with a "difficult" temperament or one who has gone through a divorce).

I cannot assuredly say whether you are making the right choices at this time. But I can share some general knowledge about day care, quality time, divorce and single parenting. Remember all of this is filtered through my biases and the biases of the society. For instance, I am not neutral about parents staying together or breaking up. I think, if at all possible -- except in cases involving physical abuse, extreme emotional abuse or substance abuse -- parents should stay together for the sake of the children. All children prefer that their parents remain together if possible.

I've discovered, through 25 years of talking to kids, that preteens and younger children are amazingly oblivious to parental discord. As kids get older, especially in their teenage years, they do become more aware of continuing marital distress and may actually wish their parents to separate. Long-term studies make clear that wives and children suffer economically after a divorce, but the emotional outcomes for children following a divorce are much less certain.

The two best-known researchers of the emotional impact of divorce on children have each followed a cohort of children after a divorce at least into their mid-20s. Judith Wallerstein says that children are irrevocably harmed, while Mavis Heatherington says outcomes are much more variable and often positive. Certainly no one insists that the love children receive must be limited to only two adults. As long as parents get along better after a divorce, children can do and accept love from parents, step-parents, and multiple sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Day care versus at-home parenting is another controversial issue in our society. In the 1970s, with women's liberation and the need for mothers to work along with fathers to maintain their families' living standards, much was made about the benign nature of early institutional child care. T. Berry Brazelton, this era's Dr. Spock, initially promoted and approved of "quality time" as an adequate substitute for at-home parenting. Over two decades, however, he became increasingly concerned about the quality of day care in America and has worked tirelessly to improve conditions nationally and has lobbied for better pay for child-care workers.

Long-term follow-up data on children in day care is not as reassuring as we had hoped back in the mid-70s. It turns out that most children raised in day care do just as well on cognitive and emotional measures as those with a parent at home. However, a subgroup of children, mostly boys, appear to do worse when there are preexisting problems in the mother-child relationship. Those kids, when they go to day care, tend to have worse behavioral and emotional problems than the kids who stay home with a parent. The reasons for this poorer outcome are not clear, and one could come up with a number of explanations. And while patterns are statistically accurate, these outcomes may not apply to any particular family.

For you personally, I hope that the guilt you feel about your divorce and going back to work doesn't compromise your ability to set limits for your son. Children need affection to feel valued -- and consistent, solid discipline to feel secure. Don't let your compassion for your son and what the two of you have gone through lead to an over-tolerance of his testing or misbehavior. It will only make things worse. From many years of working with post-divorce families, I often see a breakdown in discipline as the most common problem.

And while I commend your thoughtfulness, be careful that your worry about Joey doesn't become a problem in itself. Too much worry undermines a parent's readiness to act. Also, children can begin to pick up adult worry and become anxious kids -- or more anxious kids -- as a result.

So, Michelle, I offer you some perspectives and information on what is known. All the studies I mentioned reflect to some degree the cultural and institutional biases of the researchers. With experience and a bit of cynicism, I've come to believe that the data you get from any study is only as good as the basic assumptions made and questions asked by that study. At least I try to be clear about my biases.

You think a lot about your life with your son, and to some degree that's good. But don't let your self-reflection turn into self-criticism, because it will undermine you in so many ways. Good luck in finding the right balance -- moral and practical -- for you and your son.

By Salon Staff

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