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MATERNAL EMPLOYMENT

Everybody knows that children need parenting. The human mammal is helpless at birth and cannot survive without parental care. It takes at least two decades of family care to teach children all the things they must know in order to survive on their own.

But it is only in recent history that Mother Alone cared for the children. In tribes of hunters/gatherers as well as in small villages, many shared in child care — certainly the extended family did.

The mother-alone model is a product of the industrial revolution and suburban sprawl, two historical happenings that separated work and home, and a patriarchal culture that depended on the domesticity of women. It is a convenient division of labor for men to work outside the home while women tend to the home and children. But it is not the only model and it certainly is not today’s model with 2/3 of women with children under six working outside the home.

Are children better off with mother-at-home vs being in day care or cared for by a sitter or nanny? The answer is that it depends. It’s simplistic to think that there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Work or stay home? There are always trade-offs. Some moms tell me they don’t think they can do two jobs. They stay home by choice and may trade off career enhancement or the stimulation of a job. Other mothers may feel they can do justice to the job of parenting and work outside the home. These mothers generally have high energy levels and good organizational skills which help them juggle their two jobs. But the trade-offs here often include less time for self and spouse as well as a feeling that they are missing some precious child-parent time.

I know from personal experience that a mother working outside the home can raise children with strong values, high morals, and good manners. My mother worked and both my sister and I turned out OK. I worked outside the home and my children make me proud.

Did I ever wish my mother was home when I was growing up? Of course I did. Did my children wish I spent more time with them? I know they did because they told me so then and again when they were grown. But I knew I came first in my mother’s life and I hope my children know they came first with me.

Was it difficult to have a demanding job and raise children? Very much so but I was willing to accept big trade-offs. I never had enough time to do many things that I wanted to do. I left many things out of my life like time for friends, entertaining, gardening. I love the physical (and metaphysical) act of taking off in an airplane. If I had the time when I was younger I would have taken flying lessons. But when it came to discretionary use of time I chose to put my children first. I spent time with them, child-centered time, because I wanted to be with them.

On vacation at resorts I have watched parents wind-surf or scuba all day long while the kids stayed with sitters. In contrast, I planned vacations so I could spend time with my children building sand castles or beachcombing for shells (no, I never learned how to scuba either!).

I believe the attitude parents have toward the tasks and responsibilities of parenting is paramount. There are good mothers who stay at home and there are good mothers who work. Then there are mothers who don’t put their children first, either because they don’t realize how important it is to do so or because they don’t know how to put anyone else first. Some of these mothers work and some stay at home.

Although it’s tempting to think that children’s behavior is dependent on whether the mother stays at home or not, there is little evidence to support this. The issue is whether the mother cares enough about her child to lovingly discipline and educate the child.

The problem is not that mothers work. The problem is that mothers work in a nation that “pretends” women are staying home so that there are not adequate support resources for today’s families. If policy-makers were realistic and stopped pretending, public schools would start at age three, parental leave would available to all parents, and there would be quality child care for all families who needed it. Do we want family values? We better start by VALUING FAMILIES, the kinds of families we have today.

To me it’s a no-brainer. There must be choices for all families. In order to ensure that all families put children first, there must be a partnership between families, caregivers, government, business, and community all working together. We need unity among mothers to lobby for the well-being of all children.

Fathers cannot be left out of the family equation. Fathers can do every bit of parenting as well as mothers can, with the obvious exception of breast-feeding. Children whose parents share in child-rearing are enriched by contact with two loving adults. There is also evidence that multiple, loving caretakers actually help children develop social skills which makes sense because for so much of human history more than one person cared for the child.

Finally a word about kindergarten being the time for mothers to go back to work. It’s a practical cut-off because this is when school becomes the “sitter” for all children. But I found my children needed me more when they were teen-agers than they did at age 3 or 4. My adult daughter needed me when she was placed on bed rest before the birth of her twins. So parenting challenges continue long beyond the pre-school years.

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