Banish the boogeymom!

Why, when a woman chooses both to work and to mother, does she incite the sort of rage reserved for wayward clerics and defilers of sacred things?

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Published June 5, 2001 8:47PM (EDT)

I happened very recently to write a story questioning the legitimacy of conclusions made about the results of a national child-care study. I suggested, as did various researchers, that it was not possible to reach firm decisions about the impact of child care -- be they positive or negative -- given the nature of the data and its mode of collection. Here is one letter I received in response. It is the shortest, but not the only one, expressing this sentiment:

"Why do I get the sinking suspicion that you hand your children over to a kid kennel every morning in order to drive the latest BMW and want not to feel guilty about it?"

It's pretty funny if you know me. It's really sad, whether you know me or not. Most mommies are familiar with the oft-invoked "Mommy Wars," a battle that has working and stay-at-home mothers going mano a mano for moral primacy. And most of us know that it is largely overblown. It is true that many of us are ambivalent about mothers going to work, but studies have indicated that a majority of men and women either approve of the practice or feel that a mother's choice -- either to stay at home or to enter the workforce -- should be respected.

This fact does not prevent the periodic release of poisonous diatribes against working mothers. It's just that they don't tend to come from other mothers -- at home or at work. They come from musty quarters where "choice" is rather narrowly defined. Richard Lowry gives us his take in the May 28 cover story of the National Review. Among other things, he says this about working mothers:

"They are a historical aberration; they represent a minority preference among women; and they run exactly counter to the standard of motherhood that should be encouraged by society. No wonder elite culture treats them as hothouse flowers, who must hear nary a discouraging word. But the fact is that working moms are at the very center of a variety of cultural ills. Maybe a little stigma is exactly what they deserve."


Child-rearing manuals advise the parents of stubborn toddlers that there comes a time when it is no longer effective to simply say "No," or to expect action as the result of a stern "Because I said so." Instead, it becomes necessary to offer distractions or, better yet, to suggest that a child make a choice. The parent conjures for the toddler a heady whiff of independence but tailors the "choices" to ensure that the outcome is "safe" or "appropriate." One creates the illusion of options while making sure that the child makes the choice that is desired by the parent.

This is a strategy that is well known to mothers, but not just because they are encouraged to employ it with their children. It is familiar because, as women, we are frequently treated as toddlers, enticed but ultimately manipulated by others as we make "choices." Implicit in the realm of reproductive choice is independence; but certain in the scenario of terminating a pregnancy is scorn or shame or criminality. And when women have children, they are once again offered a variety of choices -- some of them dignified as "rights" -- and once again, they find that there is really only one appropriate option, one way to do the right thing.

This is a free country. Debate is a good thing. We can feel strongly about missile shields and panty shields and Tom and Nicole. But we have supposedly been cured of any tendency to dominate or discriminate on the basis of misguided assumptions. It is not appropriate to look upon other humans with proprietary designs, except, of course, if they are children. (Here we do not discriminate, dispensing disrespect freely with no regard to race, creed or color.) And there was, of course, that mostly informal, though widely acknowledged, liberation of women.

So why, when a woman chooses both to work and to mother, does she incite the sort of rage reserved for wayward clerics and defilers of sacred things? Why is a report about the potential negative impact of child care on children offered as proof that working mothers are selfish and unkind? Where is this pack of boogeywomen, racing to egotistical satisfaction in fancy cars, braking long enough to dump their children with strangers and then speeding past saintly stay-at-home moms, forcing them to eat their haughty dust?

The stigma that Lowry wishes to attach to working mothers will have to be just a little stigma, since stigma must be stretched these days to cover all sorts of new options that are wrong or bad or immoral, despite their being chosen by seemingly rational folks. In fact, many of these options have become bona fide alternatives supported by technology and the law, not to mention great swaths of the population.

Single people, for instance, are choosing to become single parents. Some of them are older women, some of them are lesbians, one of them is Rosie O'Donnell. There are enough of them to give a turbocharge to census statistics in this category. (New census data shows that the number of single-parent families grew five times faster in the '90s than the number of married couples with children.)

Likewise, many couples are choosing to not get married but to have families nonetheless. Some are gay, some are being creative with reproductive technology, some are adopting. (More impressive census data here: The number of married couples nearly doubled in the past decade to 5.5 million.)

As these choices have proliferated, so have the flak, confusion and heartbreak of those who belong to generations or cultures who find these choices unacceptable. To the extent that these choices can be made more difficult, or that better choices can be made more attractive, there is work underway: Bullying laws that include harassment on the basis of sexual orientation are having a tough time in local legislatures; incentives are on offer in some states to promote marriage with cash prizes.

But it would be hard -- some would say impossible -- to bar women from work. As Lowry points out in the National Review: "Returning to a regime that discourages women's work as a matter of law is, of course, out of the question." All that is left is shaming and haranguing and the frequent manipulation of statistics. Says Lowry, "At the very least young women shouldn't be constantly told that they should want what they don't."

This overpowering female urge to be at home with children is yet another myth, however, that has been exploded by science and statistics. In her book "Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection," anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who has studied maternal behavior for three decades, insists that in humans -- more than any other species -- mother love is a sometime thing, a compulsion dependent on circumstances, not just hormones.

"Mothers have worked for as long as our species has existed, and they have depended on others to help them rear their children," says the professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis. "I have come to understand just how flexible parental emotions in humans can be."

Certainly the statistics on the number of women in the workforce would seem to indicate a range of female desires and goals that go beyond giving birth and nurturing offspring. In slightly more than one decade, ending in the late '80s, the number of employed mothers with small children doubled. By the end of the '90s, more than 60 percent of working women had children younger than 3 years old.

"Working women are the norm, but we live in a society that imagines what is normal is not normal." says Lisa Benenson, who, as editor in chief of Working Mother magazine, receives a passel of venomous diatribes about working mothers every month. "Even if it is a minority of people who believe that women who go to work are wrong, evil and harming their children, that is the broad image that is conveyed; it is the image we see and read about in the media."

The beleaguered and ineffectual working mom on TV -- "a crazed harridan who can't get anything right," says Benenson -- is not a reflection of reality. "But what we see is what we come to believe," she says. (Mitigating presences, she says, are Sela Ward from "Once and Again" and Amy Brenneman from "Judging Amy.")

Spared from the most venomous criticism are single mothers who work out of financial necessity. Even though their quality of mothering is frequently questioned, their lack of choice in the matter makes them objects of pity rather than targets of scorn. Yet, says Benenson, "most mothers work because they have to." She points to statistics that show 75 percent of working mothers earning annual salaries of $25,000 or less. "Tell me those women aren't working because they have to," she says.

But if they are not in the workforce because of financial necessity, they still have a right to be there, says Benenson. "Why must we make a choice for them?" she says. "Because for some reason, raising children is something we have to be right about."

Yet the data collected on the effects of working mothers on their children seems to indicate that kids benefit, for the most part, from having a mom who works. A 1999 analysis of data collected in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) found few negative effects of maternal employment. The ones that were found -- a slight difference in the level of compliance in 3- and 4-year-olds -- disappeared by the time the children were 5 to 6 years old. Children of mothers who worked long hours were found to have slightly lower test scores, but the differences in their scores and those of children with mothers at home also faded over time.

(The quality of child care was not part of the NLSY study, but when it has been considered, a predictable correlation between the quality of care and the outcomes for children has been reported.)

In a 1999 study by University of Michigan psychologist Lois Hoffman, who has been tracking the impact of maternal employment since the early '60s, researchers listed effects of mothers at work on their children's well-being that included higher academic outcomes for children, better social adjustment for children and a higher sense of competence and effectiveness in daughters. The study also found working mothers "are more affectionate with their children than those who don't have full-time jobs." Working mothers were also less depressed and had higher morale than stay-at-home moms. "They feel a sense of empowerment," Hoffman says.

In fact, one of the few negative effects of maternal employment found in research to date is not due directly to employment but guilt about employment. Mothers who feel guilty about enjoying their jobs were seen in studies to sometimes overcompensate by overindulging their children, a factor that affects children's peer relationships and academic performance.

So to the extent that Lowry and others jealously guard access to the choice of work like some hand-built tree fort (No girls allowed!), there is no evidence that they are improving things for their favorite victims, "the children." In fact, it would seem, they could be making things worse.

Perhaps then, it is time once again for the guilt-plagued working to return to the parenting manual, this time to the section on bathroom humor. It is important, mothers and fathers are told, to ignore the immature and nonsensical mantras of children who are verbally experimenting with naughty words. Remember: If you neither laugh nor panic, the potty humor will fade as the potty mouth recognizes the inappropriate and silly nature of his or her words.

Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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