By Jennifer Ward • March 24, 2010•Writers in Residence
My daughter had several dolls lined up on an oversized chair, and she was pretending to tuck them in. She arranged a blanket over the dolls, making adjustments and patting them on the head as she worked. She asked how they were feeling and reassured them that she would take good care of them. Then all of a sudden my daughter sat up very straight. She said in the sweetest of voices, “Wait just a minute, I’ll be right back.” She hurried over to a nearby wall as she explained, “Don’t worry. I just have to take care of one thing.” She tapped all ten of her fingers against the wall, occasionally looking lovingly over her shoulder at the dolls while cooing, “You’re OK. I’m just right here.” She seemed to reach a stopping place with the tapping, and then she rushed back over to the dolls and started to caress their heads. I gave my husband a puzzled look. He explained that she was playing “Mommy.” She was pretending that the wall was her laptop, and she alternated between typing and doting on her pretend babies.
I admit I was slightly horrified when I first understood that my daughter was imitating me. Why was she rushing away from her pretend babies to mess with that wall? Why did she act like she was on such an important mission? And then why did it take her so long before she came back to tend to them again? I admit it. At first I had a classic case of “Mommy guilt.” Was my daughter abandoning her babies in favor of email?
Then gradually I became much more comfortable with the way my daughter chose to mimic me. I noticed the details of what she was doing – her body language, her attentiveness, and her reassuring words. Surely those dolls felt safe and comforted by how lovingly she tucked them in. Surely those dolls knew that when she left it was because she had something very important to do. Surely they learned from her conscientiousness, noticing that she took care to be as attentive to her “tapping” as she was to adjusting their blanket. And surely the dolls felt reassured by the fact that even when my daughter’s focus was on her “tapping”, she still maintained a connection with them by cooing back to them and glancing over her should to assess whether everything was still OK.
Watching my daughter imitate me re-affirmed what I had always hoped. At least on that particular day my daughter seemed to understand that I am always looking out for her, regardless of where I am or what I am doing. She senses that when I have to focus on something else, I will be back with her as soon as I can be. And when I’m not with her, she knows that I’ve arranged for her to be well taken care of. The most important element in my daughter’s pretend play was the glance over the shoulder. This showed her awareness and understanding that I am watching for those times when things are not quite right. When surprises come along, I will make adjustments.
Until I saw my daughter re-enact this scene I was never sure whether she felt secure both with me and without me. Although I hoped that she knew I was keeping a close eye on her as she played while I looked on from my laptop, I was never really sure whether she felt this connection. Thankfully, through her pretend play, she showed me that at least on that particular day she felt comforted and secure. This feeling may vanish tomorrow, but hopefully the glances over my shoulder will catch this shift so that we can make adjustments.
The act of balancing career and family is much like a continuous stream of pretend play. You play one or more roles in your career and one or more roles in your family. Players come and go from your “game,” and the rules are always changing. Hopefully, on those rare occasions when you observe your child mirroring your balancing act, you like what you see. I find that the key to keeping things relatively “balanced” is to focus on whatever needs must be met at any given moment. When it’s time to focus on the dolls, it’s time to focus on the dolls. When it’s time to focus on the tapping, it’s time to focus on the tapping. As I highlighted in last month’s post, people adapt to these roles differently. The important thing is to find what is most comfortable for both parent and child and to stick with that approach. Then if it stops working, don’t be afraid to try something new.
As you consider how to find the right balance in your life, you might use pretend play as your guide. Even if you don’t have children at this point, consider how your kids will imitate you in the future. Will you be horrified like I initially was, or will you be reassured that the balance you’ve attained is the right one for you and the people you care about? Will you be proud that you have modeled that particular behavior for your children or your future children? And, like most games, when your balancing game is no longer fun or no longer feels quite right, you can always change the setting, the teams, or the rules. Just keep on playing!