Tensions Between Job and Family

It is becoming more and more difficult today for men and women to decide whose demands they must listen to.

Our employers pressure us to make our career our primary responsibility. They are ready to reject us (or at least never promote us) if we are not willing to sacrifice our family and personal needs for the company store.

Our children make great demands of us. Music lessons, athletic team practices, Scouts, endless car pools, discipline, diapers, fights, tears, hunger, problems, cuts, dirt, crying, selfish behavior, demands for hugs and attention—all of that is involved in having children. It is a tremendous burden and responsibility if we do not want them to turn into human monsters.

Christianity places demands on us. We are absorbed by personal devotions, neighbors with needs, people starving in the world, church attendance, financial sacrifices, church-related parties and activities, and in making contributions of time to local church work. Living a committed Christian life, like rearing children, has its roses and its thorns. Even Christ experienced both.

More demands are placed on our time by mates, friends, neighbors, schools, organizations, household responsibilities, chores.

But perhaps the demands that drain us most emotionally are intrapsychic ones. These arise out of our personal insecurities, inferiority feelings, loneliness, pains, anger, lust, desires for power, materialistic drives, parental injunctions to be perfect, true and false guilt.

More than in any previous era of human history, men and women find themselves caught in a tug-of-war, with job, family, church, and intrapsychic demands all pulling ropes. It is no wonder so many Americans are “copping out” with affairs, divorce, suicide, alchohol, and drugs. As a psychiatrist, I empathize with the hundreds, Christians and non-Christians, who come to the Christian psychiatrists and psychologists in our clinic seeking better ways to cope with job/family tensions—which always ultimately involve subtle intrapsychic tensions as well.

Nearly 60 percent of American mothers are in the labor force, either part- or full-time. The problem of “mother substitutes” is increasingly crucial.

Jean Piaget’s studies indicate that although adequate mother substitutes are satisfactory the first six months or so of life, on the social level the mother is very specifically needed by the infant, starting at about seven months of age. Infants then need their own mothers for security and socialization; without them, a variable extent of permanent emotional and intellectual damage will occur.

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Another critical problem in American society is the increasing number of single-parent families. They have their own special problems: separation anxiety, grief, anger, depression, and loneliness. And the children may have sexual identity problems. More than six million children in the United States are living in fatherless homes.

An extensive study of 120 children from fatherless homes was presented by the psychiatry department of the University of Florida. They found that parent-child relationships are most seriously impaired among “hard-core” fatherless children—those who have been without a father for two years or more. Most of these children are either psychotic or retarded, with severe pathology and a fatalistic view of life. Children who have been without a father for less than two years show fewer severe impairments than the “hard-core” fatherless, but they have more problems than children with fathers (Kogelschatz, Adams, and Tucker in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 11 [1972]).

What a challenge to responsible fatherhood! Christian fathers who fail in their responsibilities before God are cause for concern. It cannot be overemphasized that a father’s first responsibility before God is his own family. All else comes in a distant second. Paul said that if anyone does not provide for the needs of his own household, he is “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

When a woman who goes to work full-time leaves her preschool children at a day-care center, she is likely to have genuine feelings of guilt. Like most humans, she is liable to repress those guilt feelings, rationalizing that they are based on old-fashioned morals. She may also socialize with women who encourage her to keep working, and this could cause her to repress her guilt even further. When she meets a friend who is a dedicated, full-time mother, however, her repressed guilt may threaten to surface. To keep it repressed, she may feel compelled to try to persuade this dedicated mother to get a job. After all, she reasons, if she can talk a dedicated mother into going to work and leaving her children at a day-care center, then it must be morally justifiable.

In contrast, another mother with children under the age of six may feel a false sense of guilt for leaving her children at a nursery school or “mother’s day out” program a few half-days per week. In reality, such breaks are apt to make her a better mother. But since her false guilt prohibits her from doing what is best, and since “misery loves company,” she is likely to feel self-righteously angry (though she will call it “frustrated” or “disappointed” rather than angry) toward women who do not have children, or housewives who leave their children several hours at a time to pursue other creative activities.

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The issue should not be “What will my parents think?” or “What will my church friends think?” or “What will the girls at the office think?” Rather, it should be, “What alternative lifestyle will be most beneficial for my children? What does God want me to do for my children and myself?”

I believe that staying home 24 hours a day, day after day, doing household chores, and taking care of several young children is too demanding for most people. The frustrations of being a housewife or feeling angry at one’s children at times are both normal. But neither emotion justifies leaving children in a day-care center to get a full-time job. Considering the permanent emotional damage that full-time day-care can cause to children, that is illogical, and more harmful than for mothers and children to stay cooped up in the house day after day. I believe both options are detrimental to both mothers’ and children’s mental health.

During a recent evening, I was enjoying a game with my children while my wife relaxed on the couch nearby, doing needlepoint as she watched an interesting TV show. The telephone rang, the caller a fellow physician who fought back his tears as he asked for my help. He had read the chapter on workaholism (“Do ‘Nice Guys’ Finish Last?”) in a book I coauthored with Frank Minirth, Happiness Is a Choice. He was overwhelmed with guilt. He had spent his adult life working day and night to cure and rescue medical patients, while totally ignoring the emotional needs of his family.

He told me his 25-year-old son had just had a break with reality. The young man was hearing hallucinatory voices and haring paranoid delusions. Filled with hostility, he refused help. That brokenhearted physician told me his son had been getting good counseling since he had rebelled in his teens, but that the counseling had come too late. Because of his workaholism, the physician had hardly known his son during the boy’s formative years. Now he realized he had failed as a father, and that it was too late to undo most of the damage.

Having grown up with an overdose of the Protestant work ethic, I was a somewhat overzealous honor student. During one college year I carried 39 hours in two semesters, played two sports, worked nights as a private nurse, was the president of two campus organizations, spent over an hour a day in personal devotions, read a book a week in addition to my studies, did charitable work on weekends, got engaged to be married, and won an award at the end of that school year for having achieved a straight-A record. Needless to say, I was a first-class workaholic, and proud of being one. I thought that was what God wanted of me.

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But being a workaholic was all right when I was a premed major in college, single, and 20 years old. And it got me through graduate school, medical school, and a residency in psychiatry in the following decade. But at the age of 30, I found myself teaching full-time seminary counseling courses, while at the same time I was also carrying on a part-time psychiatric practice, taking theological courses myself, counseling people evenings in my home, and participating in seminars nearly every weekend. By that time I had three children under the age of four. I remember feeling overwhelmed at times with the false notion that God wanted me to rescue the world for Christ.

Then, through the practical help of Christian friends at the seminary, the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the teachings of the Bible, I made a major decision: I decided to rearrange my priorities. I had been feeling overwhelmed with the burden of serving God. But God’s Word says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). I reasoned that if my burden was hard and heavy instead of easy and light, it must be the result of a parental injunction ingrained into my computer-brain in early childhood. And it was.

Here is how I rearranged my priorities:

Old Priorities

1. Meet the needs of every Christian, Christian group, or church that makes any demand on my time.

2. Minister to seminary students and to local churches.

3. Know God personally.

4. Write books.

5. Carry on a full-time psychiatric practice.

6. Meet my wife’s emotional and spiritual needs.

7. Meet my children’s emotional and spiritual needs.

New Priorities

1. Know God personally.

2. Provide for my own mental health needs (recreation, fun, fellowship with friends, etc.)—“How can I serve God if my own mental health isn’t what it should be?”

3. Meet my wife’s emotional and spiritual needs.

4. Meet my children’s emotional and spiritual needs.

5. Minister to seminary students and local churches.

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6. Carry on a part-time psychiatric practice.

7. Write books in spare time.

I discussed my new priorities with Christian friends, and was convinced they were biblical and health producing. Then I met the following resistances:

1. False guilt. These feelings eventually subsided after two or three years, though small twinges of false guilt still occur occasionally. I felt guilty turning down speaking engagements, or refusing to counsel people with legitimate needs who phoned me asking for help. I felt guilty for not helping on special church projects. I felt falsely guilty (and occasionally still do) for not meeting the demands and expectations of everybody around me.

2. Hostility from fellow Christians. Resistance from Christians was harder to deal with than the false guilt. After so many years of viewing me as God’s dedicated servant, other Christians had come to expect a certain behavior. When I set new priorities, and reserved time to meet them (including at least two hours a day with my children), I could no longer meet the demands of all the Christians around me. As a result, even my intimate friends sometimes became angry at me.

3. Painful insights. When I cut my workload from 75 to 40 hours a week, I had the painful experience of getting to know myself better. I learned that I am much more sinful and selfish than I thought I was when I was too busy saving humanity to be aware of my subtle depravity. Though I am actually more mature and less selfish now than a decade ago, I am also more painfully aware of the unconscious sins and insecurities that have been present all my life. I am thoroughly convinced that one major reason most workaholics are workaholics is that they are avoiding insight into their innermost motives, emotions, insecurities, and fears. When dealt with biblically, they bring emotional and spiritual growth. But they can really hurt when they first hit.

It took me a couple of years after my initial decision to give up workaholism to put new priorities into practice satisfactorily. I would encourage readers prayerfully to rethink job versus family tensions and priorities. No one else can do this for you. Don’t fall passively into the world’s mold.

Paul Meier is a psychiatrist practicing at the Minirth, Meier, Goodin Psychiatric Clinic in Richardson, Texas. He also teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary.

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