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Opinion & Essays - June, 2001 Issue #82 

Wanted: Mother
By Susan Benitez
Northern California

[I am a full time mother to three children, ages 12, 10, and 7. Since the recent separation from my husband of 14 years, I am also a full time student, working toward a career in computer programming. I originally wrote this article as a research paper for an English course, choosing this subject matter because the issues are pertinent not only to society at-large, but also within the walls of my own home.]

In the traditional nuclear family, the father has the role of provider while the mother is nurturer of the children and keeper of the household. Throughout human history, sometimes it has been necessary for mothers with young children to work outside the home, most often due to the untimely deaths of their husbands. In recent decades, there is an ever- increasing, worldwide trend of married mothers entering the workforce or returning to work soon after the birth of a child. If these women are not working because they need to support their families due to the death of their spouse, then why are they choosing to work?

Some married women who work claim their family cannot survive financially with only one income. Others desire to “have and do it all,” striving for success both in family and career. A third group works outside the home as a form of escape, recognizing just how challenging it is to both nurture children and maintain an orderly home full time, in other words, to be a homemaker. There is also a growing trend toward single parenting, mainly due to increasing rates of divorce and unmarried couples having children. In most cases this requires the custodial parent, usually the mother, to supplement alimony and child support payments with outside employment.

How do these trends affect the children? Are children who spend significant portions of time in day care better adjusted and more independent and intelligent than their peers who are raised at home, as scores of studies would suggest? Are children better off being raised by one loving – but possibly overwhelmed – parent than by two parents who perpetuate a spirit of strife within the home? Where do we draw the line when balancing adults’ needs with children’s needs? These are the difficult issues at stake in the debate over modern family structure. Dr. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, well known political and family-issues commentator, writes, “the social-science evidence is in: though it may benefit the adults involved, the dissolution of intact two-parent families is harmful to large numbers of children.”

This “harm” is not limited only to children whose families have been disrupted by death, divorce, or out-of-wedlock parenting. Preventing these circumstances, which affect significant numbers of children, is often beyond an individual’s control. What can be controlled, is a securely married mother’s choice to either work outside the home or remain home full time to nurture her young children.

Subjecting infants and young children to daily care by a surrogate so that its mother can work goes against the ingrained value system of most Americans, though most will not admit this publicly. Thus it is not surprising that there was an explosive public reaction to a review paper written by Jay Belsky, a developmental psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, titled “The ‘Effects’ of Infant Day Care Reconsidered.”

Belsky’s research group, including Dr. Peter Barglow, psychiatrist with the University of Chicago Medical School and others, showed that twelve to thirteen month old infants subjected to over twenty hours of nonmaternal care each week are at risk for future psychological and behavioral difficulties. Nonmaternal care includes day-care centers, family day care, and care in the infant’s home by a babysitter or a relative. “These findings sent shudders of guilt through millions of parents.” If these parents truly believe that the mother’s decision to work outside the home was morally correct, then why do they shudder at such reports? Why is parental guilt a prevailing theme in dual-career households?

Psychologist Stephen Covey writes, “The ‘traditional’ family of the past – a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mother who’s primary role is raising the children – is now the exception… For dual-earner couples with children, there never seems to be enough time.” It is clear that children’s interests are best served by being raised at home in the presence of loving parents, as opposed to an institutionalized day care facility. Working parents pronounce themselves guilty of not spending enough time with their children, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not.

But if working creates such feelings of guilt, then why do significant numbers of modern mothers continue to work outside the home? Why don’t mothers take advantage of family-friendly company policies, when available, that allow flexible or reduced hours, or job sharing? The most frequent and politically correct excuse is the family’s inability to afford the reduced hours. “But if money is the whole explanation, why would it be that at places like ‘Amerco,’ the best-paid employees, the upper-level managers and professionals, were the least interested in part-time work or job sharing, while clerical workers who earned less were more interested?” asks Arlie Hochschild, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley .

Hochschild suggests the answer to this question is that “work has become a form of ‘home’ and home has become ‘work’” Many are now are finding that work, rather than home, has become the place where they feel the most relaxed, appreciated and competent. This reversal of roles between work and home is likely due to at-home pressures such as the rising divorce rate, the often baffling and emotive task of raising children, and the complex demands of extended family.

Many expert psychologists and sociologists agree that modern parents are disregarding their parental conscience to further their careers. “More mothers and fathers have found children to be a burden as the traditional social and moral supports for family life have become more precarious and the opportunities for distraction and entertainment outside the family have become greater.”

Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes, “people don’t want to be told that what they feel or believe they have to do (or simply want to do) is wrong and may injure their children and society… whitewashing the consequences to children is self-indulgent.” Despite their guilt about not spending more time with their families, many mothers continue seeking the public recognition and personal fulfillment from the workplace that they feel is far greater than what they would ever achieve “only” being a parent.

Fortunately, as the shifting social trends move between the various extremes of the swinging pendulum, very recently researchers note a change in working mother’s attitudes. “In the late ‘70s, only about half of women ages 20-50 worked outside the home… In the late ‘90s, three-fourths of women ages 20-50 worked… Today, [working mothers] consider home and family as important as a career, want quantity more than ‘quality’ time with their kids… feel less ambitious, career- driven and competitive,” according to Edmonds. This prioritization of family over and in conjunction with career is a paradigm-shift described as “sequencing.”

The sequencing mother’s watchword is “balance.” She gauges her success based on how her various activities make her feel, by listening to her inner voice – those pangs of conscience that were being ignored during previous decades. If her career demands are requiring too much time away from home, she chooses to prioritize home; but nevertheless seems to manage to have it both ways.

“I was not a mom,” pediatrician Patti Young says about the period she spent in medical residency, when she left her toddler with a sitter to work 100-hour weeks. Now she works 20 hours a week on her hospital’s night and Sunday shifts in order to be home more. She had misgivings about scaling back but reminds herself that “the potential to be the best doctor is not taken away from me. I have all the tools. I’m just choosing to use those skills part time, for now.” Young’s experience typifies that of the sequencing mother.

Another mother, Kathy McDonald, an MBA graduate of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, who has departed and rejoined the career track several times, speaks of her uncertainty about returning to corporate America. Once her children are in school and more independent, she says she would like to “ramp-up” her career again. But she says she would not return to the traditional corporate world unless significant changes have taken place in how the work gets done. “It’s important to manage the work, not the time. I don’t want somebody on my case for leaving at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. I don’t have the patience for that kind of nonsense anymore.”

This shift in attitude is a step in the right direction, but in and of itself will not bring about sufficient change in our children’s lives. The sequencing mother may say that her family is firmly entrenched at the top of her priority list, but as long as she continues to work she maintains a meaningful commitment to her employer. As Janelle Phifer, former director of the Toledo (Ohio) Legal Aid Society states, if you are employed “…you don’t say no to the bosses – you say no to your family.”

In the childcare debate, the question at the bottom line – and typically the least-addressed issue – is how does childcare, whether in or out of home, affect the child? Much debate on this issue centers on the mother’s right to work or the quality of the day care program. But the individuals who are most affected – the children themselves – have no voice in the argument. Long-term consequences of day care on young children are yet to be definitively established by the scientific community, but the definitive guide currently available to all parents is conscience.

It will take years to further research childcare issues and draw informed conclusions. In the meantime our children are being subjected to an institution considered by some as little more than a perilous experiment. Suppose an individual is visiting his doctor for an annual checkup. At the end of the examination the doctor tells him that he needs an injection which will be either a) possibly very harmful, b) moderately harmful, or c) the effects are unknown. Do you suppose the patient will take the injection? Given those options, most people would not readily submit to their doctor’s advice without first giving the matter extensive thought and most likely getting a second professional opinion. This analogy is applicable to the childcare debate: if we are not certain about the long-term effects of day care on young children, why put them at risk unnecessarily? Why treat them as guinea pigs merely to benefit the career aspirations of adults?

The comments of mother, Linda Burton, taken from Karl Zinsmeister’s “Brave New World: How Day Care Harms Children” thoroughly summarize the ironic simplicity of the decision that working mothers face: “While I – and most of my friends – were saying our minds were ‘too good’ to stay at home and raise our children, none of us ever asked the question, ‘Then what sort of minds should be raising our children – minds that were not very good?’ My carefully worded advertisements for childcare literally came back to haunt me… I wanted someone who would encourage my children’s creativity, take them on interesting outings, answer all their little questions, and rock them to sleep. I wanted someone who would be a ‘part of the family.’ Slowly, painfully, after really thinking about what I wanted for my children and rewriting advertisement after advertisement, I came to the stunning realization that the person I was looking for was right under my nose. I had been desperately trying to hire me”

World-renown pediatric psychologist and child advocate, Dr. Penelope Leach, perhaps sums it up best: “However carefully she is fed, washed and protected, and however many mobiles are hung for her, a baby’s overall care is not good enough to ensure her optimal development unless she is constantly with people who know her as an individual and who always have the time (and usually the inclination) to listen to and answer her, to cuddle and play, show and share. Those are the people she will attach herself to and that attachment matters.”

Simply put, there is no substitute for the care that a child’s own mother can provide; no other whose attention is more likely to be committed to that child’s well being. If a mother gives her child’s needs top priority, then mother and child will always be found together.

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