The Work+Life “Wars”—Mommy Wars, and now Daddy Wars—have always baffled me. Are these wars real? I often wonder (and have written about the subject before). And assuming they are real, for at least a portion of the population, what is the underlying source of the conflict?
In any war, there are two competing groups, each believing, they are “right,” and each willing to fight to prove it. Where does this need for “rightness” regarding our individual work+life choices come from? Well, an opinion piece by David Brooks in this Sunday’s New York Times may hold a clue.
Although Brooks analyzes the current political climate, the work he cites by current writer, Daniel Goleman, and by the economist, Adam Smith (from 250 years ago) offers a surprisingly relevant explanation:
“As Daniel Goleman writes in his new book, Social Intelligence, the subconscious mind is able to detect nonverbal emotional messages that the conscious mind is not even aware of. Babies cry in sympathy with other infants. Young children use “mirror neurons” to imitate and learn. As adults, our brain and cardiovascular functions are influenced by the people around us, as we instinctively mimic their emotions.
We are engaged, Goleman writes, in endless “protoconversations,” and you get these social contagions. A mood or change can sweep through a group or a nation as people subconsciously mold one another’s behavior
…this was anticipated by Adam Smith nearly 250 years ago. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith based his theory of morals on the intense sociability of human beings…Smith argued that more than just about everything else, people hunger for approval. We feel intense pleasure when we experience the sympathy of others. In a well-structured society, he continues, our desire for sympathy leads us to restrain our selfish or egotistical behaviors.
Furthermore, Smith continues, we not only want to feel praise, we want to feel praiseworthy. We want to act in ways that would deserve praise, if a wise, impartial spectator happened to be watching us. In our best moments, we want to live up to the ideals our society has gradually engraved upon us.”
What does this have to do with the Work+Life Wars? Well, if Goleman and Smith’s theories hold true, our need for “right” individual work+life choices comes from our desire to “subconsciously mold (or mirror) one another’s behavior,” or as Smith puts it, “feel praise.” Therefore, if we make a choice that we don’t feel is being reinforced or praised within our culture, we are compelled to label the opposite choice as wrong. So stay-at-home moms feel that working mothers don’t respect them, and visa versa. And, now dads are getting into the game according to rebeldad.com.
But the problem is that the traditional stereotypes that mothers and fathers use to analyze, judge, and compare their work+life choices are 40 years old, and are no longer valid.
We need to make sure the “behavior” we subconsciously mold ourselves to and “ideals of our society” reflect today’s reality. What is a “good” mother in 21st Century? What is a “good” father? A “good” child of an aging parent? How is work defined—when, where and how? What is success? The answers to all of these questions are very different from those reflected in the stereotypes of yesterday, yet our culture hasn’t caught up. The result: work+life wars.