The working mom myth

Another study has shown that having a mother who works doesn't harm kids. But, a psychotherapist argues, you don't need dubious social science to know that.


Shari Thurer
April 6, 1999 11:00AM (UTC)

Working mothers, relax. But don't get too comfortable.

In the latest skirmish in the ongoing culture war that pits stay-at-home moms against those who work outside the home, working mothers are the winners. A new study, published in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, has exonerated mothers from charges of causing harm to their children by working. Reported by Elizabeth Harvey, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, the findings suggest that even children who were babies when their mothers started back to work did not suffer because of their moms' absence. Harvey evaluated the development and health of more than 6,000 youngsters, using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

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If mothers employed outside the home -- a full two-thirds of all American mothers -- are to take a break from their relentless guilt, however, they had better hurry. It is probably only a matter of time before some new study or book infects our collective mind-set and causes us to obsess about how we might be damaging our children. In the maddeningly mysterious process of shaping little personalities, it seems that parental anxiety is a nagging constant, while child-rearing lore fluctuates wildly, fueling that anxiety to a fever pitch. We seem to assume that there is one correct way to mother and that science will tell us what it is.

Don't get me wrong. I am not critical of this new research in and of itself. In fact, as a social science study, it is unusually rigorous. Containing a larger and more representative sample of children than most prior research, it goes a long way toward improving upon the faulty data that is often used to prop up the cherished myth that exclusive, full-time mothering is an ideal.

But the perpetual game of research one-upmanship played by developmental psychologists and child-rearing gurus obscures an important fact: It is next to impossible to prove that observable, measurable parenting behavior has a predictable impact on children's well-being. To date, our scientific investigatory tools are not up to the complexity of the task. Even Harvey's study suffers from an unavoidable woolliness with regard to its methodology -- it does not, for example, control for quality of child care. This does not necessarily disprove its findings, but it does leave the field wide open for future obfuscating -- which will undoubtedly occur, given the strong wish of many to find Harvey wrong. Yet lost in all the research and counter-research is the simple truth that a mother's working outside the home (or not) has never been shown to be more than a weak predictor of anything in her child.

The fact is that even our most cherished beliefs about child-rearing do not rest on scientific proof but on fashion and politics. On the mommy front, sentiments holds sway. Only last year we were told by grandmother Judith Harris, in her widely publicized book "The Nurture Assumption," that a child's peer group, not his or her parents, has a more powerful influence on the child's development. Before that, MIT historian Frank Sulloway resurrected the old chestnut about the importance of birth order in child development.

Twenty years ago, when I was in the throes of child rearing, maternal bonding was presumed to be the preeminent determinant of later mental health. I dutifully schlepped around my daughter's "security blanket," a ratty old stuffed rabbit supposedly symbolizing me, lest she be traumatized by its -- my -- absence. My own mother would have summarily thrown the thing out because it was undoubtedly full of germs. In accordance with the expert advice of her day, she took care not only to avoid germs, but to avoid "smothering" or "castrating" her children. (Remember the fate of Mrs. Portnoy!) Yet my mother's mother was more concerned with daily bowel movements and good posture. All of these ideas about proper maternal behavior were purportedly bolstered by hard data but, strangely, so-called objective science has suspiciously managed to affirm the prevailing public mood, however it has swung.

I happen to agree with Harvey's conclusion that children of working mothers suffer no permanent harm, but not because of her study. Rather I agree because in the 25 years I have been practicing in-depth psychotherapy, I have not come across a single patient who was damaged specifically by maternal employment. I have encountered many patients who were hurt by their mothers' grotesque behavior: by extreme emotional unavailability, excessive preference for another sibling, outright abuse or neglect. But those characteristics may be present in a mother whether she works or not. It is not working per se that is the issue, but the quality of parenting -- and, unlike most studies, I include fathers here -- over the long haul.

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Besides, today's working mothers are doing what mothers have always done. Surely if this arrangement were as harmful as some claim, it would be incontrovertibly apparent by now. Throughout most of human history, mothers have devoted more time to other duties than to child care and have delegated aspects of child-rearing to others, except for a brief, affluent period after the Second World War. Fleeting as it was, that period was ossified in a number of TV sitcoms (a new rage in the 1950s), like "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver," so that now we still think of the breadwinner-housewife family pattern as natural, good and right, the way things were since time immemorial.

This idealization of the '50s is especially acute among political conservatives, who have never warmed to mothers who are otherwise engaged, especially when they don't have to be. Of course, many of these same people also believe that welfare mothers should work. When a middle-class mother leaves the hearth, however, she is deemed selfish, callous and greedy -- qualities ironically similar to those attributed to lazy, selfish welfare mothers who don't go out and work. But the decade of the '50s, with its labor-intensive ideology for good mothering, was the exception, not the rule. Mothers had never been so exclusively preoccupied with their offspring before, nor have they been since. In the '60s, some mothers returned to work because "women's liberation" gave them permission, but many more worked out of economic necessity.

The briefest glance at history will dispel the notion that there is but one correct way to mother. Your grandmother may have bottle-fed your father on a rigid schedule and started his toilet training at the tender age of 3 months, practices that some people might regard as absurd today, if not abusive. Yet he managed to grow up. Children tend to survive their parents' bungled efforts to raise them properly -- be it wet nursing, Watsonian behaviorism, Spock permissiveness, Israeli kibbutzim, round-the-clock empathy, aggressive cognitive stimulation, or any other parenting styles. All these shifting methodologies -- compared to which maternal employment might seem mild -- were considered ordinary in their time. There is no data showing that the incidence of mental illness was greater or lesser during any of them. In fact, what seems most evident is that there are many good ways to raise children.

Perhaps it is our ever-present anxiety about our "goodness" as parents -- fostered by impossible standards perpetrated by the media and an avalanche of pseudo-scientific narcissim about our chosen lifestyle -- that dulls our perception to the virtue of other ways. But it is time we stopped focusing on the obviously small difference between the well-being of children whose mothers work outside the home and those whose mothers do not, in the service of endorsing our own particular preference for parenting.

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Such hairsplitting diverts our attention from the real problems of children in America: crumbling schools, poor health care, drug addiction. One in eight youngsters actually goes hungry. There is a painful irony in educated parents' lavish outpouring of attention on their own children and their obliviousness to the children of others. If we are to feel guilt about our performance as parents, let's derive that guilt from an appropriate source -- our treatment of the nation's poor children. A more democratic allocation of our time, resources and concern across the entire population of young people would probably benefit everyone.


Shari Thurer

Dr. Shari Thurer is a psychologist who teaches at Boston University and practices psychotherapy in Boston. She is author of "The Myths of Motherhood" (Penguin, 1995).

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