Research Profile: Understanding Family-Work Synergy in the 21st Century

by Maylee Sands

The work and home life balance is a topic many researchers are eager to study, with the two worlds often framed as a dichotomy: work and home in conflict with one another.

On the basis of Erikson’s Psychosocial Stage theory, however, this conflict can be seen as damaging and lead to stagnation. Recent research at Fordham University seeks to suggest that work and home lives should work together instead of in conflict in order to resolve the crisis in Erikson’s seventh (and penultimate) stage of development.

Clinical psychologist and associate professor, Dr. Mary Procidano and undergraduate psychology students at Fordham University, are investigating the modern women’s work and family life to better understand the characteristics of resilient development, or as Dr. Procidano names it—family-work synergy. In summer 2014, Fordham seniors Alexandra Carlin and Amelia AuBuchon interviewed 40 women in Rochester, NY and Philadelphia, PA, respectively. There was great diversity in the education level, careers, and age of their children.

The Fordham Undergraduate Research Journal (FURJ) had the opportunity to ask Dr. Procidano questions about her project, Motherworks:

So far, what has been the most surprising finding?

The most pleasant surprise so far is the value of what we are calling “shared meaning;” the importance of being on the same page with significant people, such as the spouse (even if the 2 are working different shifts), the eldest child who may serve as a surrogate parent at times, or a coworker or manager who “gets it” and makes suggestions that make life simpler.  A somewhat troubling surprise is the frequency with which a source of nonsupport turned out to be our participants’ own mothers, who reportedly lamented that their adult daughters could not spend more time with their children and questioned the importance of their work. Probably well-intentioned, and perhaps anxiously overinvolved, grandmothers were found to make remarks that led their competent, adult daughters to feel criticized and their contributions undervalued.

Were some of the interviewees more forthcoming than others?

Absolutely; and interestingly (as above), the most forthcoming individuals seemed to be those who also reported having the most social support, from their partners, mothers, coworkers, friends, and children—people with whom, in pursuing their important life tasks, they experienced “shared meaning:”—people “got it.” It may be that these women, who had experienced sharing meaning, and were ready to describe it to us. But women who said things like, “I don’t impose on others” or “I’m pretty self-sufficient” seemed less ready to share meaning with us.

Would you consider a parallel project entitled “Fatherworks” as an adjunct project? Would you anticipate similar interview feedback?

We are planning it already. It will be interesting to see how men and women construct meanings, benefit from support, and ultimately experience family-work synergy similarly and differently at this point in history.

Are the issues facing working mothers global in nature?

We are designing a study to begin to explore the nature of cultural and socioeconomic influences on family-work synergy. Cultures probably provide themes that influence the ways that working mothers construct the meanings of important, self-defining memories.   (We believe that, in general, personal narratives are constructed and reconstructed in the framework of broad cultural narratives.) But in any culture, poverty is probably related to the type of work available, the extent to which work reflects personal identity, options for child-care, and other factors that may place particular challenges on working mothers’ experiences of support and construction of resilient personal narratives.

How can the results of this research project be applied in the future?

Virtually all empirical research on working parents emphasizes negative outcomes (e.g., mood spillover, role overload, and marital tension) rather than highlighting characteristics of resilient development, or what we are calling “work-family synergy.”   Our findings suggest that psychotherapy should attend specifically to exploring and enhancing resilience in the structure of meaning in the personal narratives of working mothers, and other people engaged in complex life tasks.

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Dr. Procidano, Alexandra Carlin, and Amelia AuBuchon, along with FCRH students Samantha Steimle, Kerry Rota, and Alyssa Mayer, who are collaborating in transcription, data coding, and bibliographic research, will present, “The meaning structure in personal narratives of working mothers:  Family-work synergy and resilience,” this summer, at the is 36th annual conference of the Stress and Anxiety Research Society in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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