I am a clinician, and at my best one to one with a client. However I have ended up spending many years writing for many reasons, including for publication.   The most compelling reason to write has been to convey meaningful information to other women during talks, workshops and the like. Over time I hope to put each of these small pieces on this site for you to check out.  I may also post three chapters written for an unfinished book that seems to have taken a back seat to my clinical work for now.

Routledge has published a chapter written by me titled ‘Motherhood and Marriage’ in the book “Creating Connections” in July 2013. The book is meant for academic use, mainly for couple’s clinicians, and is expesive.  I have uploaded the chapter here, but it’s been plagued with technical issues. If this does not work, send me an email and I will email it to you. 

Motherhood and Marriage: Naming the work.

This chapter proposes that a woman’s ongoing work of motherhood is often not an understood or supported aspect of her marriage. It is hoped that couples therapy can become a safe place where a woman’s work of motherhood can be acknowledged and supported.

The work of motherhood is often invisible. It is also not a valued part of dominant discourse (Coll, Surrey & Weingarten, 1998). This chapter aims to make the work visible so that it can be named within a couple’s work on their marriage.

It is important to make the work of motherhood visible as it [spoiler title=”Read more” open=”0″ style=”1″] contributes to the robustness of a couple’s relationship with each other: not only is her work as a mother a major preoccupation for the woman, it also occupies huge amounts of her physical and emotional resources, and is a major organizing principle for her life choices. Marriage in this chapter refers to a heterosexual marriage. Of course, this is not the only form of marriage, nor is marriage the only family unit within which children are raised.

The clinical cases presented in this chapter are from the author’s work with mothers within various stages of a heterosexual marriage, including separation and divorce from such a marriage. In the absence of other, equally relevant information from other kinds of marriages, the material presented in this chapter should be considered applicable within the context of a heterosexual marriage. Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) (Jordan, 2010) will be used as the theoretical frame to study the work of motherhood, particularly its impact on a couple.

RCT enhances the process of making the work of motherhood visible. When this is not done, a chasm can open up within the marriage that only deepens with time, since there is disconnection rather than connection (Miller, 1988). All case composites will highlight the actual work that a mother does. The first one will name the physical work of motherhood that is invisible and devalued. The second one names and elaborates on the emotional work of motherhood. The third one highlights difficulties in couples therapy when neither the therapist nor the couple has a language for the ongoing work of motherhood.

Mothers themselves often do not see their work as “real” work, and have difficulty placing value on it. It is more common for them to call it “love,” and to downplay the work and skill that goes into such love. The cases will highlight how a mother’s physical and emotional resources are clearly being consumed by the work of motherhood. Yet, as mentioned above, she is quick to downplay her work. It is common for mothers in my practice who work from 5.30 am to 12 am every day to have difficulty falling asleep because their brains do not have permission to let down. They normalize the demands on them, still believe they are not doing enough, and feel guilt and inadequacy about themselves as mothers.

It is as though a mother is forbidden to say that these are impossible hours and inhumane demands: as if saying this reflects badly on her as a mother and a person, and casts doubt on her love for her children. This seeming prohibition and the tendency to discount her own work needs to be understood by a couples therapist, and a mother encouraged and supported to talk about her daily work, instead of brushing it off as “something all mothers do.”

Controlling Images of Motherhood

The theoretical construct of Controlling Images (Collins, 2000) can be helpful in understanding some of these observable behaviors, especially the apparent contradiction between the huge physical and emotional labor expended by a woman on behalf of her children and her worry and guilt about not doing enough, her ongoing concerns about being a good mother, and her sense of personal inadequacy around her motherhood work.

A controlling image (CI) is an image or series of images about a group that define how that group is perceived by others. For example, CIs about the “good mother” are of a mother who is selfless, ready to suffer, always available for her children. Such images control the cultural imagination about what mothers should be like, and the socially permissible realm of possibility for mothers. CIs are generated by voices outside the group, usually by voices that exercise dominant power in society. They serve to maintain the status quo and are based on stereotypes.

When the real experience of a group member (a mother who is frustrated because she has to stay up five nights in a row to tend to her sick child) departs from the CI (she should be able to ignore her own needs because she should be totally concerned about the child’s suffering, and the child’s needs), that difference is defined as deficiency. The individual (in this case, the mother) begins to feel personal inadequacy and shame, which makes it very difficult for her to share her experience with others. The individual (again the mother in this case) comes to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with her, because her experience is not fitting in with what a good mother is supposed to feel.

This makes it risky for her to share her experience. Emotional isolation as well as a silencing of the real lived experience occurs, strengthening the power of the CI as the only “truth” about that experience or about that group as a whole. The dominant CIs about motherhood in this culture are that motherhood is easy and “natural” for a woman, that it is intrinsically fulfilling, and that it should be a joyous experience.

There are at least two results of the controlling images of motherhood. First, there is an absence of support for the actual work of motherhood. This makes perfect sense, given that motherhood is not imagined as work: it is supposed to be a fulfilling and joyous state. What sup- ports could be needed for a natural, easy and fulfilling way of being? Support is therefore deemed unnecessary. Secondly, there is incomprehension about how and why motherhood can generate stress. So any stress is downplayed and minimized. Again, given the CIs, this is a logical stance. How and why should an easy, natural and fulfilling state be stressful? The implication is that motherhood should be effortless, something that women do easily. “Real” work is more commonly associated with work in the public sphere: work that is visible, has a commonly recognized value, and is accorded respect.

The Stresses of Motherhood

Thus, when a mother talks about feeling stressed, the unstated assumptions are that she is making a big deal about nothing, or she is not doing something right, or she is doing something wrong. As a consequence, any stress arising from the “non-existent” work of motherhood is labeled as a problem with the woman, rather than understood to be a result of the demands of the work itself. There is also a societal silence about the fact that mothers do this work for most of their adult life without being accorded respect or acknowledgement.

A woman who is a mother will spend 18 plus years doing constant work that is considered non- work. This is an area of a marriage where a couples therapist can open up the silence, and encourage sharing as well as respect for the work.

Naming the Physical Work of Motherhood

As mentioned above, mothers have difficulty naming their work as real work, and are apt to be dismissive about its value. The following case composite presents such an example and highlights the work. It is hoped that when a mother is helped to name her work within a couple’s therapy context, the couple can be helped to address the underlying anger, resentment and depression that often accompanies devaluation and minimization.

Mina is the mother of three children. She came to see me for depression, and reported that it had been building up over time. After her third child, Mina had decided to stay home, after almost 10 years of working as a lawyer. The demands of her work and the needs of her three children became irreconcilable, even when she tried working part-time. As part of this decision to stay home, Mina told me she is now fully responsible for doing all the work of making a home and raising the children.

However, when asked to list her work, Mina had difficulty doing so, saying vaguely that she did what all mothers do, and that she probably does not do as good a job as she should. A therapeutic intervention was made. Mina was reassured that this difficulty of listing her work of caring as real work is common with mothers; at the end of a day of constant labor, a mother often cannot say just what it was that she did all day. The culture she lives in does not value the work of caring as work, and she has learned to dismiss it or minimize it, even while she is doing it. In addition, the controlling images of motherhood being a joyous and fulfilling role silence and prohibit a woman from accessing her own experiences that are different: that motherhood is real, constant work, and that it is often challenging, tiring, and repetitive.

Mina reported that she felt tongue-tied, unable to represent her own experience within the therapeutic relationship. This mirrored what she was experiencing in the world about her work as a mother. The exercise of naming is important for the therapist and the husband to witness in a couples therapy setting. Within an individual therapy setting, it proved very powerful. Mina, in response to her therapist’s request, agreed to be mindful of what she did each day, listing each thing that she did, even if she thought it was “not really work.”

After several weeks of keeping notes, here is what emerged. The list is almost too long to read, which is the point. It comprises real work done every day. Each day, Mina is responsible for all the meals and snacks. This includes planning them to ensure that the family’s nutritional needs are met, shopping for them, making the meals and the snacks, laying them out for the family, and cleaning up after them. Mina is also responsible for gathering up the laundry, doing the laundry, folding and putting it back, cleaning the house, and cleaning the bathrooms. This includes daily pick-up, daily putting away, and daily finding anything that is needed and cannot be found, as well as shopping for whatever is needed in the house, or for clothing the children.

All maintenance work for the home, such as house repairs, technology needs, seasonal chores in the house and the yard, maintaining a garden, plumbing issues, problems with appliances, heater and air conditioner malfunctions, and any other requirements for creating and maintaining a home are also her responsibility. While she is doing all of the above, Mina is also responsible for the children’s daily needs. She wakes them up each day, ensures that they are dressed and fed, and then drives them to and from school, and to and from the daily evening activities; three different schedules in three different locations each evening, organized amid making dinner, feeding the children, cleaning up after the meal, while also making sure all homework is done.

She supervises homework every evening, and most often, helps all three children with it, including their attitudes to it, their moods at the end of the day, and their learning styles. She makes sure all school supplies are available, keeps track of the letters and notices sent from school about activities the children will be involved in, the permission slips that need to be monitored and signed for these activities, getting the supplies for said activities, and rearranging her day with no notice to support these activitiesMina is also responsible for keeping up a relationship with teachers, intervening whenever something is not working for the teacher or the child.

Each evening after the children go to bed, Mina puts the remaining food into containers and stores it appropriately for another use, washes the cooking pots and pans, loads the dishwasher, cleans the kitchen, prepares next day’s lunches, and makes sure school clothes and supplies are ready: this necessitates going through each backpack to ensure there are no notes from school unreported by a child, all homework is packed, outfits are washed and ready with accessories such as socks and shoes, along with weather-related outerwear.

While Mina is doing all this, she is also scanning her mind about what she might have forgotten and what she should be doing next, while she is also checking her email and returning phone calls. She will then pay bills, and worry about money.

Despite all her work, Mina feels vulnerable because she does not make money; she feels she is not doing “real work.” This underlying vulnerability is caused by the invisibility and lack of legitimacy in our society for her work of motherhood. It is an unnamed trigger, and can trigger all other worries without warning, resulting in “I am not doing enough,” “I should do more,” or some other variant of anxiety, guilt, or self-blame. Mina will then put more effort into whatever she is doing, with a nagging imperative to ease everyone else’s life just a little bit more.

As long as something needs to be done, Mina will feel responsible for getting it done. Serving the needs of others has become Mina’s primary avenue to self-worth and purpose. Naming her work, and having her therapist as a witness for her work, made Mina realize that she was constantly working, and that this work was necessary for children to thrive. This realization eased her self-criticism that she was making too much of the work.

She also realized that she did this work in isolation. The most painful part of her isolation was that her closest friend, her husband, did not recognize what she was doing. Mina’s husband often gets home late at night. By then, the living area is picked up and looks nice, the children have been bathed and fed, and next day’s lunches have been made. He is usually very tired, but does not ask Mina if she is tired too. When she talks about her day, his mind often wanders, and Mina feels she is talking about unimportant details that he couldn’t be bothered with. Thus her experience in the relationship mirrors what she has experienced in the culture: her work of motherhood is not important.

Her husband is also simply mirroring what he has learned in the culture outside: motherhood is easy and natural for a woman, Mina has the easier time of the two; she is comfortable at home while he is out there doing real work with real stresses. Another aspect of Mina’s work that directly impacted the couple’s life as a social unit is the family’s social connectedness. Mina manages relationships with the parents of her children’s peers, organizing play dates for the children, informal dinners with the parents, and contributions of the family to the school’s need for volunteer efforts.

She also manages the family’s relationship with their religious and cultural heritage. They are Jewish, and it is very important to them that they raise the children with strong awareness of and connectedness to their heritage. So Mina spends regular time and effort to develop a relationship with their temple. She makes sure to organize her and the children’s time such that they can go there consistently: the children go to Hebrew language and Jewish culture and history classes, in addition to their regular school and school-related extracurricular activities. Mina also makes time to volunteer at her temple, thus creating a community for the family.

The Devalued Work of Caring

Mina was helped by the therapist’s intervention about the role of the culture in devaluing the work of caring. She began to understand that both she and her husband had internalized this low value on a mothers work, and began to work at naming her own work and seeking respect for it within her marriage. The experience proved to be very empowering for her, and she reported that her husband felt a sense of relief that she had a specific request from him, rather than unspecified anger.

Mina’s decision to seek therapy was triggered by an incident with her husband. He remarked on the status of the unfinished basement, piled high with “get to it someday” boxes and stacks: surely Mina could get to this in her free time? Mina reported to me that she had exploded, screaming at her husband that she worked longer hours than he did, was always tired, and felt that no one saw how much work she did on behalf of each person in the family. She had made the choice to stay home for the sake of love, she said. She had not expected to feel invisible, and had not anticipated the slow draining away of her self-esteem.

A couples therapist could make a significant intervention at this point, helping the couple communicate rather than blame and withdraw from each other. Mina has exploded not because she is “irrational,” but because the gap between her inner experiences of motherhood and the lack of naming and acknowledgement of them has become simply too wide for her to negotiate. Her isolation and depression can be lessened when her partner, with the help of the therapist’s intervention, “sees” her work for what it is (Miller & Stiver, 1997).

When the mother lists her work, opportunities will open up for noticing and acknowledging the work. Small concrete ways of doing so can be suggested. For example, the daily task of ensuring that there are meals on the table can be acknowledged. When the children talk about activities they are engaged in, such as dance or tutoring, Mina’s efforts to make them happen can be acknowledged. Similarly, noticing her mood and exhaustion level at the end of the day creates a space for the mother to share her experience of mothering, and it also provides the husband with a platform for giving concrete acknowledgement for work done in the course of his wife’s day.

This intervention exemplifies RCT’s theoretical construct of relationships as action (Surrey, Kaplan & Jordan, 1990). Becoming parents often affects a marriage in unexpected and powerful ways. Both partners can take quite some time to adjust. The major part of parenting is still done by the woman. By actively intervening to name this, a couples therapist can help a couple acknowledge this safely, while also helping them to understand the labor and skill required by the mother to do the work of mother- hood, and then helping them to renegotiate the unwritten rules of support between them.

It is often helpful to provide language. Most couples are helped when they can see that the work requires a high degree of constant attention to the children by the mother: attention that must simultaneously weave between the differing needs of children who may be far apart in age, temperaments and capacity to manage their needs.

Mina’s work of love requires the skills for anticipatory as well as ongoing empathy; the ability to be attuned such that she can be present for each child with a differentiated responsiveness. Her cognitive and affective experience is constantly oscillating and zigzagging between the needs of each child, the daily maintenance work for her family, and the interfacing between each child and the outer world.

On one hand, it is like having three bosses; each making simultaneous, equally urgent demands, with little capacity to monitor themselves, and requiring responses that are pressing and time-sensitive. On the other hand, while she is juggling and titrating her capacity to register, understand, and respond to these three bosses, she is also responsible for single- handedly running the entire company. Her work is also without fixed hours. Children’s needs do not arrange themselves neatly along a nine to five schedule. They do not switch off when mom is tired, it is late, or she is juggling other pressing demands.

Additionally, she is doing a job where there are no feedback sessions, no mentoring, no coaching, and no “team” that meets regularly for companionship and encouragement. The only feedback a mother gets is when something goes wrong. She needs acknowledgment, respect and support from her husband in order for her to continue to love him over time.

A couples therapist can play a significant role in shifting the dynamic in a marriage around the wife’s work of motherhood. Too often, clients report that the couple’s therapist “babies” the husband, rather than expecting him to shift unhelpful behaviors. Work that is deeply demanding of the wife’s physical and emotional resources needs to be accommodated within the shared reality of the couple, and a couples therapist is in a position to help them do so.

Naming the Work of Caring

The next case example highlights the impact on a marriage when the woman is aware of her work of motherhood, tries to explain it to her husband, but runs up against the societal silence and incomprehension around the work of caring being non-work. Sometimes a husband may not understand that caring is real work, that it requires skill as well as effort, and results in exhaustion as well as other emotions such as frustration, impatience, and worry.

In other words, the work of empathy is real work, often requiring paying attention to the needs of the other person(s), and deserves validation and support like any other demanding work.

Alisha came to see me for ongoing depression, alternating with anxiety. At our first meeting, she described herself as “reactive,” even when she did not want to be. She reported that she worried a lot. Her marriage of 11 years had settled into an uneasy status quo. She was angry with her husband but could not say why. When not angry with him, she felt guilty about feeling angry. Overall, she rarely felt happy or joyous, even though, according to her own analysis, there were no obvious reasons for her to feel unhappy. This caused additional guilt, which then turned into increased efforts to be happy and pleasant. Invariably these efforts failed, and she felt depressed or anxious in a restless kind of way.

Alisha worked full-time along with her husband Paul, managing their consulting business. By her own definition, this work was fiercely demanding and the marketplace unforgiving. They had two children, ages six and three. If you were to meet Alisha during a school gathering, she would strike you as a smart, articulate and successful woman.

As part of the initial evaluation I began to gather details of her day. Like many women, Alisha tended to underplay most of her work as a mother. For example, she described her day something like this: mornings began with getting the children off to school and day care, then she worked all day at the office, then the children were picked up by her, and then came dinner and then whatever else needed to be done in the evening: baths, office work, etc.

In contrast to this bland recital, Alisha had no trouble describing the details of her day at her business: the fragmented demands of difficult customers, the juggling of time for service delivery versus business creation, the constant attention needed for managing the employees, as well as myriad other issues that she faced each day.

I remarked that it seemed that the children somehow just got to school from their beds, and then disappeared when they got home. Dinner just appeared on the table, and the children magically reappeared. They then automatically ate whatever was put before them. Somehow, after that, they were asleep in their beds. And the housework, laundry, errands, cooking breakfast and dinner, cleaning, managing the finances, I asked? Who did all of that?

Reconstructing Alisha’s day as a mother and the work that went into it took several tries. At first Alisha was hesitant. She felt she would bore me, or that I would judge her as making too much of what every mother did every day. I reassured her that I needed to understand the details of her day. Then she became anxious: upon exploration, it emerged that she felt vulnerable about being judged. It became clear that many times, Alisha felt she fell short of her own ideas about a “good mother.” Life was so rushed, with so many stresses: she felt she short-changed the children.

An intervention was made, validating her concerns. Alisha reported feeling very validated when I shared that most mothers I work with felt just like she did; no matter how much they did, there was always something left undone, or something they felt had not been done well. She was startled and very curious when I named the role of the culture: the impossible expectations that exist about the “good mother.” If children need something, we expect a mother to do it, regardless of whatever else she might also be doing.

I further explained how we internalize the values of the culture we live in, and that our standards for what is normative are for the most part an unconscious process. Understanding and absorbing this intervention shifted Alisha’s belief that her feelings reflected a personal shortcoming of hers.

When Alisha felt secure that I would not be judging her, here is what emerged. Each day began with Alisha getting up earlier than Paul, so that she could shower and get ready before waking up the children. She then went individually to each child’s room. In her six-year–old’s room, Alisha would call the child’s name (Bunny) to wake her up. On a good day, she would smile as the child opened sleepy eyes, while bending down to kiss the six-year-old, murmuring “good morning” while holding her close. On a stressed morning, she would be aware of the need to manage the tone of her voice, of not rushing the child too much, and controlling the effect on her of the pressure of time. She told me she was not always able to do all of that.

Regardless, Alisha’s work as a mother began with waking Bunny up. The six-year-old would get out of bed and begin the daily ritual of heading to the bathroom. Alisha would then proceed to her three-year-old’s room, sit on the bed, and gently call for her to get up. She told me that this younger child (Peanut) tended to be fussy in the morning, so Alisha tried her best to manage her own impatience and stress levels while waking up Peanut.

On a good day, she usually stroked the child’s face and forehead while waking her up. The three-year-old opened her eyes to mom’s face smiling and murmuring endearments, along with prompts for her to get up. Often, Alisha would pick up the sleepy child with much laughter and kisses exchanged, and head towards the bathroom. Once in the bathroom, it was necessary to enter into negotiations with Peanut around who would open the toothpaste tube, who would spread the paste, turn on the tap, and so on; such negations were necessary, Alisha explained, since Peanut was at the stage when she wanted to do everything herself. It required Alisha to anticipate what Peanut needed, slow herself down, and exercise patience; again, Alisha was quick to own that this was not always possible.

Next came the stage of undressing and then dressing for the day. This could go smoothly or it could take time, like it did that morning, said Alisha, with a new-found confidence that her work as a mother would be understood and respected. Today her three-year-old had insisted that mom leave the room: the child, who could not find or pull on a pair of socks unaided, wanted to dress all by herself. After this had been dealt with (and mom allowed to stay in the room), Alisha faced her younger daughter’s decision to wear a pink mini skirt over the blue jeans that she absolutely had to wear that day. It was a good morning, so Alisha was able to distract and cajole Peanut to wear just the blue jeans. The pink skirt, it was agreed, would be much better with the pink socks and the pink shoes which Peanut could wear as soon as she came home from school, when she could also dress up her doll in exactly the same way.

At the same time that Alisha was involved in these delicate matters, she could hear Bunny in the other room, dressing by herself. Keenly aware that Bunny might feel left out, or need help, but not always able to do anything about it, Alisha would periodically call out to her older child, checking in with her. She found herself switching her attention constantly between the two children, making sure to keep both within the circle of her care. Eating breakfast and putting on jackets, mittens and hats followed much the same pattern. Alisha’s attention swung back and forth between the two children: one might spill the cereal, another refuse to eat or just eat slowly, then the first one start whining for another kind of cereal, etc. By the time the children were dropped off, Alisha felt exhausted.

Exposing the Complex Demands of Motherhood

This is a very demanding morning, requiring work that is challenging, complex and unpredictable. Empathy allows Alisha to be responsive to her children’s needs, but it is not always easy. Alisha needs to be attuned to two different children with their differing ways of interacting, their likes and dislikes, and their particular mood that morning. At the same time she must be aware that there is a time constraint, and both the children and she need to be somewhere else.

Regardless of what she may or may not be able to do, Alisha is aware that she needs to deal with the pressure inside herself in order to respond to the needs of her children. She is attuned to the press of time as well as the needs of her children, and aware that these can conflict. Alisha responds to her children’s needs, opening herself up to what they need, rather than just what she needs.

RCT points to the importance of mutuality in relationships (Jordan, 1986). An individualistic response would be based on the needs of the individual self, rather than the holding of one’s own needs as well as the needs of the other during interactions. Some of the children’s needs are visible in the traditional sense. It is apparent that the children will need to be woken up, teeth brushed, clothes changed, beds made, laundry brought downstairs, and so on. But RCT sensitizes us to needs that are not always apparent, and the work of empathy involved in anticipating these needs and responding to them.

Alisha is taking account of some “invisible” needs and capabilities of the children. The little one is fussy when she gets up, Alisha says to me. So she, Alisha, is responding to this anticipation by waking Peanut up with remedies for the grouchy mood: the soothing comfort of hugs, the safety net of being picked up and taken to the bathroom, and the holding environment of patience, as this little one launches herself into the develop- mental task of practicing mastery over daily skills. On a good day, Alisha balances how much to help Peanut, to support the growth of the child’s confidence in her own developing ability. Her focus is on empowering her child. She takes account of the child’s need to do things herself. By anticipating the child’s limits, and then building in responses that allow her to succeed, Alisha protects her child from feeling shame. When the toothpaste oozes out because the pressure applied by those tiny, hot little hands is too much, Alisha exclaims that the toothpaste is naughty this morning; it is running away.

Role of the Couples Therapist

A couples therapist can make a powerful intervention by naming and acknowledging the layers of anticipation, thoughtfulness and responsiveness involved in Alisha’s seemingly “easy” work of a routine morning. Reframing her work as that of creating a holding environment, a Petri dish so to speak, within which each child is held and nurtured, and her growth fostered, would allow the couple to have a respectful language about Alisha’s work.

Alisha shared that Paul was an involved and helpful parent too. He regularly did the grocery shopping, helped with the driving, emptied out the dishwasher each morning, and loaded it up at night. But somehow, his interaction around the children’s needs did not work. For example, explained Alisha hesitantly (and with much defending of Paul), he would ask a child to brush her teeth. Upon being told that she wanted to do it herself, he would agree with the child and walk out of the bathroom. When he would return a few minutes later, expecting the job to be done, the child might still be in the bathroom, trying to push the toothpaste back into the tube, after having emptied the entire tube out onto the counter: she was curious to see how much there was inside, she would earnestly explain to Daddy. This would lead to Paul chastising her, devaluing her judgment that she could “do it on her own,” and Peanut bursting into tears or refusing to brush her teeth. Or he might try to help Bunny pull a sweater over her head, and do it in a way that led the child to cry, or the sweater to get stuck.

This is where the complexity of empathy needs to be named. An intervention by the couples therapist, giving language to the complexity of empathy, would safely allow Paul to view the children’s and his own behavior differently. The dynamics of empathy are not easily available for the learning in the culture at large.

Additionally, empathy is often confused with vulnerability, which is equated with weakness in the larger culture. RCT’s explication about the role of empathy, as well as its importance for relational zest, can be used effectively to help couples understand how to support each other for mothering as well as parenting work.

Getting Caught between Needs of Husband and Children

Without such support, Alisha found herself caught between the expectations of her husband and the needs of the children in her marriage. Pay attention, she would scold the children; children don’t just do a task to get it done, she would explain to Paul; it is the process of doing it that captures their attention. Hurry up, she would say to the children, feeling constrained to take care of Paul, who was often impatient with the pace of “growth in process.” Turning around, she would feel the pressure to also stay true to the children’s reality: they are continuously practicing their own capacities, they are discovering a new facet of the world, she would try to explain to Paul. They don’t know how to time themselves to suit our adult needs. She tried to be empathic to everyone’s needs, but did not know how to ask for empathy for herself (Jordan, 1984). There were days when her head would spin with the non-negotiable needs of each of her loved ones, and she would end up feeling drained.

At other times she had tried sharing that she got frustrated too. There was always so much to do, and not enough time. She tried to explain how motherhood had altered her in response to the needs of her children. She wanted Paul to understand her pressures, to share her mothering experiences, so that she felt less alone.

Her stress would reduce if Paul and she could talk about the way she constantly had to juggle her work demands, his expectations, the children’s needs, and the necessity to keep the household running. She reported to me that she did try to explain in ways that would help Paul understand her and the children’s needs. Children need us to adapt to their capacity to understand the world, she would explain to Paul. Telling a child to lay the table when she was six, and then getting angry because all she did was put out four plates, did not help the child and might even be harmful to her sense of confidence in being able to navigate the world successfully. Teaching such young children how to “stretch” required taking the time to teach skills, in ways that did not shame them or make them feel inadequate. Empathic interactions were the “love” within which they made sense of a sometimes confusing and demanding adult world.

But it did not work. Paul would either refute Alisha or become dismissive of her. He felt that Alisha had her way of doing things, he had his, and that was that. Alisha would get upset, and try to shift the discussion to the children’s needs, wanting Paul to understand why she did what she did, and why she often felt overwhelmed, tired or stressed out. Paul would then feel that she was being manipulative and emotional, or she was controlling. He would blame her for his interactions with the children, or leave it all up to her.

Alisha was left feeling misunderstood, angry, and constantly anxious, with a strange sense of loneliness even though she was surrounded by her family. She also felt that her work was unseen. There was no space to discuss why she sometimes felt tired, frustrated or anxious around the children’s issues, no space to discuss that she needed support too. Over time, the unspoken bottom line between the couple had become that her moods and complaints were because she was unable to manage the children in a way that did not tire her out, or make everything proceed seamlessly. She made too much of the work, she was too sensitive, too caring, too emotional, or too rigid. Alisha had no words with which to defend herself, or to rebut Paul’s version of her reality. She resented having to defend herself, and felt that there was something missing in her marriage.

When Individualism meets Relationality

Something is indeed missing: Paul and Alisha are using different paradigms of relating to the children. Paul is using an individualistic approach in which each person is separate, and is encouraged to be “independent” (Jordan, Kaplan, Stiver, Surrey, & Miller, 1991). He extends this to his parenting style; when Peanut says she wants Daddy to leave the bathroom because she can brush her teeth herself, Paul does so. When he returns to see the job undone, and the bathroom sink a mess, with all the toothpaste out of the tube, he loses his temper because of the pressure of time to get to work, and because the child said she could do something that she could not. He tells her she cannot, she was wrong, and Peanut dissolves into sobs saying, “I can, I can, I can.”

Alisha is using a relational approach (Jordan et al.,1991). Upon being asked by Peanut to leave, Alisha assesses the child’s desire as well as her lack of ability. She nurtures the desire without shaming the child for her lack of ability. She also tolerates the pressure of time, Bunny’s needs in the other room, and her own desire to move the morning along quickly. She balances her own needs with those of the children.

These two markedly different ways of responding to the same situation are very particular ways of organizing self–other interactions. Paul’s way, and the dominant way of this society, is the individualistic way. Each individual is a separate unit. There is legitimate permission to place one’s own needs as the primary needs to consider in each relational situation. When the “other” is capable of explicitly stating his/her needs, the individualistic person can choose to consider these needs, and then choose to be responsive or not.

Mutual responsiveness as a way to be mutually responsible for the wellbeing of a relationship is not a requirement for the individualistic self. Additionally, there is no responsibility on the individualistic person to hold his/her needs in abeyance for the sake of relational or caring work. There is permission to ignore the needs of the other if these interfere with fulfilling one’s own needs.

Furthermore, there is also permission to ignore the impact of one’s actions on the relational other when fulfilling one’s needs. Paul behaves as he does with the children and Alisha not because he does not love them; he does so because in the individualistic model of self–other relationships, he is doing nothing wrong.

Though the above example uses a male/female distribution for individualistic versus relational approaches, this is by no means my intent or the model of RCT. Both men and women are capable of organizing relationships in an individualistic or relational manner. In addition, it is possible and indeed common for men and women to have both relational and individualistic ways of organizing self–other interactions.

In this particular case composite, Alisha proceeds with her self being “in relationship” to the other. Action taken on her own behalf considers the impact of these actions on the other. She holds herself responsible for ensuring that in the process of fulfilling her own needs, she does not minimize or lose sight of the needs of the relational “other.” In addition, her interactions with the children are not about winning or losing the argument or the issue of the moment.

Communicating Around Difference

Alisha found it very helpful to have a language for the different ways of being in relation with the other, and was able to face the fact that Paul used an individualistic model in which his self needs were above the needs of his family. He did not think this was wrong, and indeed would have been startled to learn that empathy for the other requires holding the needs of the other as equally important.

She also found it very helpful to understand that motherhood is a very particular kind of relational contract. With help from the therapist, she slowly found a language and the confidence to begin to challenge Paul’s assumptions about a relationship, and about parenting. She learned to say that the “other” in this case is a child. In such a relationship, the child is unable to take care of his/her own needs, and must depend on an adult for physical as well as psychological sustenance. For a long time, this child will also be unable to articulate her needs in ways that allow for negotiation, compromise, or delayed gratification in the adult sense. It takes sustained effort, cognitive and affective skills, as well as practice to make sense of a child’s needs.

Her marriage would have been helped by the involvement of a couples therapist who had language for viewing motherhood and the work of empathy through an RCT theoretical framework.

When Couples Therapy Encounters Difficulties

Priya has been married for 19 years and came to see me because of difficulties in the couple’s relationship. They had sought therapy at Priya’s initiative, because there had been some significantly disturbing interactions between her husband and the children. He had an authoritarian style with the children, but now they were pushing back. This was making him raise the stakes, by shaming or punishing them. For example, most recently he had insisted that the children ski down a slope they were not ready for. Both (one 13 and the other 11) refused, whereas earlier they would have felt anxious, cried, but done it. Upon their refusal, he lost his temper, told them they were wimps, and stormed off. Both children became afraid that Dad would not come back, Dad did not love them, and that he was ashamed of them.

Priya told me this had been a pattern, and she had been too intimidated by her husband’s authority and self-confidence to look at it. She felt powerless and unable to effect change (Miller, 1982). But her children’s repeated meltdown forced the issue, and the couple decided to go to couples therapy to figure out how to communicate about the children.

During couples therapy, Priya realized that she was fearful of naming her husband’s behavior, and let the therapist know this. She was referred to me, with the message from the therapist that she had “issues.”

Very quickly, it became clear that Priya felt “less than” her husband. She could not immediately give words to this feeling; it was just a nameless, formless belief. Slowly, however, she was able to realize that she believed his job of earning money was more important than her own.

Indeed, she did not quite believe that her work on behalf of her children could be called “important.” She was anxious and insecure about finding fault with her husband: she feared his anger, not because he was unusually explosive or abusive, but because if he became angry with her, she felt intensely anxious.

Alisha realized that this anxiety made her feel she was somehow not good enough, and this feeling completely disorganized her. She would feel she had to make it all right, get her husband to somehow approve of her again, and get the relationship back to a place where she had his approval.

Priya had been a successful career woman before having her children, and did not recall having this intense insecurity and fear around her career issues. She realized that she had had no external validation for anything that she did for 15 years.

Priya has internalized our culture’s beliefs about the non-existence of the work of a mother. She dreads the common question “do you work?” When faced with it, she replies, “No, I am a stay-at-home mother.” Her “issues” are more than personal shortcomings: they are the result of being in a “low-power” situation. The purpose of her life, to devote herself to caring for her children and making a family, is hardly regarded as a purposeful or high-power life situation in our culture. Priya believes she does nothing of “real” value. She has no reason, evidence or support to believe otherwise.

The Importance of Contextualizing Feelings

Naming her feelings as the result of her situation, rather than as personal shortcomings, was a very effective intervention with Priya. She quickly understood the impact on her of the isolation within which she worked, and the low power of her work as a mother. She began to re-view her anxiety as an accumulation of years of feeling minimized and invisible, and feeling powerless to change it. She worked hard in therapy to observe herself, and actively manage these feelings.

As a result, she began to respect herself, and expect to be respected for her unfailing love and work for her family. Over time, she found a new balance between mutuality and power in her relationship with her husband (Jordan, 1991). Unfortunately, the couple stopped couples therapy because Priya felt unsupported by the therapist as she grew in her individual work. She felt that there was something missing in the therapist’s attempts to name issues, and ended up telling the therapist that she felt that her work as a mother was invisible, devalued or pathologized in the couple sessions.


This chapter has attempted to give language to the physical and emotional work of motherhood and its impact on a marriage, using the theoretical framework of RCT. It is suggested that a mother’s work on behalf of her family is often an important organizing principle in her life. However, this work can be invisible and devalued. This chapter suggests, through case composites, that a mother’s work be a legitimate focus of attention, communication and support during couple’s therapy.


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