Knowing Your Value

When we moved from Montreal to Canmore, we transitioned from a neighbourhood that was predominated by double-income, professional households, to a community where many mothers have left paid employment to dedicate their time and energy to running their family. Different lifestyles and life choices. And to be sure, these different choices produce different outcomes in things like the income level of the family and the pace of life in the home.

But do they produce a “better” family, or happier people within the family, one way or the other? When we were in Montreal, we knew families that were functioning pretty well, despite fairly hectic lifestyles involving full-time work hours by both parents. We also knew families that were divorcing, or had discipline problems with their kids, or were struggling with simmering issues of one kind or another. It was all over the map.

Here in Canmore, where lifestyle choices tend to be highly family-oriented, I have not gotten the impression that things are substantially different in this regard. I have not done anything like an empirical study. But there are happy families and divorcing families and struggling families here too, in proportions that do not seem to me to be dramatically different from what we saw in Montreal. It’s too bad, in a way – because wouldn’t you like to think that there is a formula you could follow? Wouldn’t it make things easier to know that, as a general rule, one way works better than another?

I have come to believe that at the end of the day, it does not have to matter who does what within the family. It is not necessarily so important which tasks are performed by who. What matters is that you have a negotiated agreement as to how the labour will be divided, and that everyone is reasonably comfortable with the terms of the agreement. Over time, the agreement may come to be less satisfying to one family member, or less well matched with the family’s needs, and then it needs modification. The transition phase provoked by that development can be a challenging time in the family dynamic. But still – it’s the existence of an agreement that everyone can live with that matters. Not so much what’s in the agreement.

The agreement that works for my husband and I (at least for the moment) is one where we both try to do a bit of everything. We both work. We both prepare meals. We both drive the kids to soccer practice, or shop for their clothes, or listen to their triumphs and complaints at the end of the day. Either one of us might shovel the driveway or review our investments or return the library books. This works for us (most of the time) because of who we are and how we are each wired.

Of course, we do not each do all of these things in equal measure. Each of us is naturally better at or more interested in certain things, and as a result we tend to do more of those things because that’s what comes easy. Plus, on any given day, one of us may be more available than the other to attend to certain things. But we both know that if one of us isn’t around to make a decision or take care of something, the other will do it, no matter what it is. Because it doesn’t always matter who does what. It just has to get done, and making sure that it does is valuable to our family.

It takes enormous energy and commitment to run a family. For most of us, it is the biggest single project of our lives, and by far our biggest investment. Yet sometimes, because it is so all-consuming, we need to step back and get a little perspective on just how much we are doing and how essential all the little pieces are to keeping things moving forward. Consider, for example, the following inventory of “jobs” within a family:

  • If our kitchen was a restaurant, there would be a chef, a dishwasher, a waiter/waitress, a busboy and a hostess.
  • If our house was a hotel, there would be housekeeping staff, laundry service, grounds-keepers, a maintenance crew, porters, and a concierge to greet new arrivals and give wake-up calls.
  • If our family was a business, there would be a book-keeper, an accountant, an office administrator, a controller, a purchaser, an events coordinator and social convener, a sales and marketing department, a CEO, and definitely – definitely – a human resources expert.
  • If our home was a hospital, there would be doctors and nurses, social workers, therapists, pharmacists, nutritionists, bed-pan emptiers and vomit cleaner-uppers. And they would be on-call 24/7.
  • If we were a consulting firm, we would offer services in life skills coaching, motivational speaking, personal training, spiritual guidance, project management, financial planning, interior decorating, fashion consulting, security, self-defense, and career counseling.

  • And somewhere in there, there would be taxi driving too.

Whatever the division of labour in your house, whatever portion of the breadwinning, nurturing, cooking/cleaning/homemaking falls to you, it is important to never lose sight of the value that your contribution makes to the well-being of your family, both as a unit and as individuals. Negotiate an agreement with your spouse, if you haven’t done so already. Re-negotiate it if necessary as needs and resources change. But always keep sight of the importance that your efforts make to the family machine. And then keep doing them.

So on this Mother’s Day, don’t be shy to soak up the appreciation that you are (hopefully) receiving from those around you. You very likely deserve it. But in addition, accept some appreciation from yourself. When you believe in the importance of what you do, you feel a stronger sense of reward for doing it, and may even end up feeling motivated to do more of it. Which is good for everyone, including you. Because, like Mom used to say, “you get out of it what you put in.”

Happy Mother’s Day!

It takes enormous energy and commitment to run a family. For most of us, it is the biggest single project of our lives, and by far our biggest investment.

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