The mother of a three-year-old and six-month-old infant, completing her many years of medical training including a residency and specialty fellowship, was married to a man, who having changed career goals, had just completed medical school. His residency match required a move to another city. The mother was experiencing the stress of finishing her work, finding living arrangements, school and child care in a new area, and leaving behind her professional contacts and opportunities for a post training career.

She clearly expressed the emotional struggle she was experiencing, knowing that without her husband’s support she would not have been able to complete her own training as well as having two children along the way. She said if the positions were reversed he would be doing the same for her but … . She struggled to say what she was feeling and so I finished her sentence saying, “It doesn’t feel fair.”

In great relief she sighed and said, “Yes, it doesn’t feel fair.”

I thought about this exchange having just written about the art of compromise. Compromise means experiencing the pain of compromise because sometimes what we have to give up begins to feel too hard — even when justified in some measure. In this instance, it seemed that several conflicts were involved.

This was a person who could not have achieved her goals without a strong conviction about equality between men and women, yet she was someone who felt strongly about family and the care of children. There was a conflict between a belief in equal opportunities for both and sacrificing her own opportunities for her husband. But there was also the conflict between feminism and the feeling of following the traditional path of giving priority to her husband’s career. In the most basic sense, the conflict was between self-interest and family interests. It is a self-other conflict that characterizes many areas in life that require compromise.

Carol Gilligan, writing “In A Different Voice,” asserts that the conflict between self and other constitutes the central moral problem of women, complicated by the fact that “conventions of femininity” have equated goodness with self-sacrifice. She writes that women attempt to solve the moral problem in such a way that no one is hurt, and their task is to be able to include themselves as deserving of consideration.

Self-sacrifice indeed was considered part of the traditional role for women, especially in regard to motherhood. As wives, women were expected to defer to men, whose role as breadwinners was given greater value and higher priority than that of housewife/mother. The renewal of feminism and the women’s movement has brought about not only greater opportunities for women in the marketplace, but has sought to erase the concept of self-sacrifice from the role of wife and mother.

In the still changing nature of family life, the sacrifice required of men has moved in the opposite direction, namely that of relinquishing the more favored position and sharing the role and responsibilities that were traditionally those of women. Gilligan makes the point that women have tended to equate goodness, or self-worth with self-sacrifice and need to be able to separate the two. Men, on the other hand have equated their superior role with masculinity and also are faced with separating the two.

The point is that in many of the compromises required in family relationships the difficulty lies in the seeming challenge to self-worth. In correcting old ways, one often swings in the opposite direction. Finding balance in meeting the needs of another as well as one’s own is a work in progress.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.