The Parenting Paradox

Present-day Parenting

I listened to an intriguing radio interview as part of Women’s month dialogues in South Africa in August 2020. The interviewee was a woman who had achieved a senior position in finance – a male-dominated industry, historically.

When relating her story of how she came to be in the finance sector, her words were something like this: “I decided to raise my children for five years and stopped working during that time. After five years, when I decided to return to the formal working sector, I felt I had not accomplished anything.”

This got me thinking. We have children and call ourselves parents. But then we leave the upbringing elsewhere so we can pursue careers, and feel we have made a difference or achieved something.

An unaccomplished parent

I wondered what it meant to have accomplished nothing because she had chosen to work from home. Is this not a 24/7 duty?  As a stay-at-home parent, she worked in an unpaid job for an outcome that could not guarantee a comfy holiday, weekend getaways or an SUV. But she devoted her time, love and energy to her children. She parented them full-time and, in all probability, developed in them a sense of confidence in themselves, trust in the home, and security in the world. If parenting is about raising a child and being present to see to their physical, emotional, intellectual and social needs, how could doing this mean she had accomplished nothing? I guess these are the intangible accomplishments of parenting. The ones that don’t bring invitations to talk show radio stations.

An apparently accomplished parent

It’s not uncommon to see parents committed to their jobs and aspiring to career advancement. Children certainly benefit from these gains – even if it’s bragging rights or excess material comfort. We can argue that their exposure to novel places through regular travel or easy access to resources expands their worldview and opens innumerable doors. Hard-working executives can employ private child-care and Uber drivers. They can live in secure estates that ensure the safety of their precious offspring. They can see to the rights of their children to a safe place to stay, clothing on their backs (and in their cupboards), food for their bellies (and their reserves) and top-class education. It’s quite an accomplishment – a tangible one at that. It’s the working person that gets the accolades and the radio interviews.

The parenting paradox

Instead of parents committing to raising their children (parenting), they are committed to raising lifestyles and status (adulting). This is not a criticism, but more an observation about parenting in middle- and upper-income groups in South Africa. The ‘accomplishments’ of parents do not necessarily reflect the level of engagement with their children as mom and dad at home, but rather what they have achieved while disengaged from their children as adults in the workforce.

I’m wondering what it means for those less tangible aspects of parenting – raising emotionally intelligent, functionally independent, and socially appropriate adults. But more than that, I’m concerned that when a parent chooses to raise their child in the full sense of the word – physical presence, emotional availability, social regulation and spiritual guidance – they feel they are not the accomplished parent.

Stay-at-home parenting or work-away-adulting

So herein lies the paradox of present-day parenting: the tangible accomplishments of parents belong to adequate adults whose resources drive their achievements outside the home. The intangible accomplishments of parents belong to those who stay at home where there is no measure of success or opportunity for promotion.

We live in a society that values what it can see. Beautiful homes and fancy cars trump a confident pre-schooler or polite teenager. It’s an interesting concept when one considers that few people stay in the same job outside the home as long as they might remain on duty as a parent.  

Parenting (not adulting) is an accomplishment in its own right

I just think it’s time we accepted parenting as home-based work that is equal in measure, value and status to that performed in the employment sector. In fact, the accomplishment that comes from choosing parenting over adulting is what establishes the groundwork for future excellence in the working sector and as a citizen in society. It is an accomplishment to raise your children as much as (or even more than) it’s an accomplishment to meet and exceed their material needs. You can be an adult and you can be a parent but the two are not necessarily inclusive and the latter is seldom given its due recognition.

Author’s note: adulting is an informal term used to describe behaviour that is responsible and grown-up; parenting is the activity of bringing up a child as a mother or father.

A second note: Thank you to SAFREAN colleague, Denise Mhlanga, for editing this post.

Disclaimer: the views expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAFREA.

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