• 'Tend and Friend' Instinct Can Transform Women into Superwomen

    By Mary Lee DeCoster 

    There is scientific research, lots of it, that supports the legitimacy of tend-and-befriend behaviors of women versus the fight-or-flight behaviors of men when faced with challenges. Confirmed by evidence documenting the differences in our neuroendocrine systems, we know that females have lower levels of testosterone and higher levels of oxytocin, the "bonding" chemical. These hormonal differences play out in findings that women protect their offspring with tending, as well as seek a social group for mutual defense with "friending." This tending and friending instinct is part of the the female response to stress. Women instinctively recognize the benefits of affiliation when they're under stress, and, therefore, they seek social support and grouping together with others in response to stressors. 

    The “tending” of children is both instinctive and natural, where the mother normally takes on the role of finding appropriate care for the children, in both single-parent and two-parent families. I can attest that all of this is true, because I instantly took on a tend-and-befriend position when my first husband and I faced separation and divorce early in my career. 

    Tend-and-Friend Superwoman

    I suddenly became a single parent with three children, ages 4, 2 ½, and 11 months. The separation was exacerbated by an extended custody battle, which resulted in investigations conducted by the King County Family Court to validate who was the better parent. My instinct to “tend” and care for my children prevailed, along with a little “fight,” which served me well through the next three years. At the end, the subsequent terms regarding support, visitation, and calendars were finalized.

    Throughout this tumultuous period, I befriended many other moms with kids on the soccer teams, in the ballet group, at swim classes, soccer practice, and Little League to share carpools, movie nights, and camping trips. In this time before personal computers and Excel, I had a handwritten calendar on the front of the refrigerator that detailed who was going where with whom each day of the week.

    The outcome was the realization that with befriending, I could do anything. My spine was now made of solid stainless steel. Leaky toilet valve? I called my neighbor Ron to learn how to fix it and repaired it myself. Need to hang Christmas lights on the roof line of a two-story house? I borrowed a ladder from the Tipples, and up I went. Need to paint the house? Twelve neighbors joined me one Memorial Day weekend to convert the white house with red shutters to heritage blue with gray shutters. Succeeding as a single parent was a reflection of the many friends who provided expertise, support, and hugs!

    Working Mothers

    During my single-parent years, I worked full-time as a practice manager for a group of pediatric surgeons. While I worked, my three children were in three different daycare arrangements. Molly, 8, went home with a girlfriend after school, Michael, 6, stayed at his school in an after-school program, and Mark, 4, was enrolled in an all-day preschool called “Hands Across the Years.

    Located inside of a long-term care facility called Restorative Care in south Seattle, Mark was one of six original students to register in this innovative program where the children were integrated with the residents of the facility. Every day, the residents came into the playroom to be with the children. They read books, worked puzzles, and constructed houses out of blocks. Holidays were celebrated by decorating wheelchairs, walkers, wagons, and tricycles with ribbons, balloons, and crepe paper, followed by a parade winding through the corridors of the home. The children joined the residents in the dining room each day for a hot lunch, sitting with a “grandmother” or an “uncle” to share the meal. 

    The surprising outcome of this experience for my son was learning the normalcy of oxygen cannula, wheelchairs, and walkers, where he saw nothing odd about the ancillary equipment, the slow gaits, or the hard of hearing. Every day, all day, he had a large group of adults who responded immediately to his requests to, “Watch me do this,” and who did not try to take over the puzzle or the blocks to “show the correct way” to do something. The original group of six children bonded with the seniors, reflecting the objective, “hands across the years.” It was such an innovative program that Jane Pauley featured it on “The Today Show,” where my son Mark was one of the stars.

    There were two periods when having an in-home nanny was less expensive than having three children in childcare centers. the first nanny, “Rachel,” brought her two toddlers with her to our home. Having moved recently from South Carolina, she introduced her charming Southern slang to the children, and she helped with the housekeeping and started dinner preparations most afternoons. She also had a tendency to “borrow” my clothing, which I discovered when an expensive wool sweater with a “dry-clean only” tag went through the washer and dryer, shrinking it to a child’s size. 

    In the second instance, “Tim” was separately employed as a part-time companion to a developmentally disabled teenager, and he arrived at our home just in time to receive my three kids after school. He was also a member of a Christian rock band. He covered four days in-home while I traveled out of state to an HFMA meeting. The neighbors let me know that the band practiced in the living room every night into the wee hours. In spite of the hiccups, in both cases the children were well cared for and expressed their affection for their caregivers.

    Keeping House

    As they grew older, each child learned to contribute to the everyday household operations. They learned to change their beds, do their own laundry, and make their own lunches. My mother was surprised to find my 6-year-old loading the washer with his clothes and questioned him, “Do you know what you are doing?” He replied, “Sure, Grandma, you just put the clothes in, add the soap here, close the lid and turn this dial to ON. It’s easy.” My daughter-in-law has expressed her gratitude on multiple occasions regarding her husband’s ability (and willingness) to help with all of the household chores; plus, he is a great cook.

    The last phase was the latchkey phase. This was in the early ‘90s, before the Internet and cell phones. I required each child to call me at work when he or she arrived home from school. My assistant would take the calls if I was unavailable. One afternoon, she came into the large meeting I was attending and motioned for me to come out of the room. In the hall, she explained that Molly was calling and was insisting to speak with me. Worried, I rushed to the phone. Molly proceeded to launch into an extended tattle where Mark was eating a banana and some cookies, and she had told him he would spoil his dinner. If he didn’t stop, she was going to tell mom, and so she was telling mom, and what was I going to do about it? Exasperating? Yes. I told her I would deal with it as soon as I got home, and that she wasn’t the banana police.

    These same three kids made breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day a tradition. I would pretend to be asleep while listening to the activity and lively discussion in the kitchen. Soon, a tray would arrive, carried by all three children, containing the largest Tupperware bowl filled to the brim with cheerios and milk, some well done and cold toast, and orange juice (also filled to the brim). A tulip they picked from our yard was in a separate glass on the tray, and everything was delivered with the three most beautiful smiles. This is one of my favorite memories.

    So, no matter how hard the circumstances, know that your tend-and-friend superpowers are within you, just waiting to be activated. 

    Mary Lee DeCoster is a revenue cycle consultant at MLDeCoster Consulting in Phoenix.




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