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In Praise of Working Mothers

These days it appears fashionable to put down working mothers. The current status symbol is to be a Soccer mum rather than a CEO. An effective party conversation gambit is to announce, “I’ve quit my job to be a stay-at-home mum.” If a woman in the next conversation pod proudly comments to a friend, “I hear you’ve just been appointed to full professor,” listeners in the pod might smile insincerely or look the other way. Women leave high-level governmental positions with the announcement that they are resigning “to be a full-time mum.” Or, they phrase it in a more troubling way: “I’m quitting work because I don’t want someone else to raise my children.”

As a working mother from the time my youngest child was 1 year old, I’m here to tell you that, whether you work part-time, full-time or not at all, you are still “raising your children.” Sometimes you might wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t.

Over the years I have written countless articles urging people to use the term “supplementary care” or “shared care” rather than “substitute care” for whatever kind of childcare they use. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but what we call something strongly influences our attitudes toward it. The terms I recommend get away from the suggestion that mothers have abandoned their primary role and hired a substitute!

Whatever non-maternal care you arrange for your children supplements the care you offer and requires you to share the care of your children with someone else. It is really no different from what will happen when your children enter the formal educational system. The teachers to whom your children will be exposed will supplement the learning opportunities you can provide on your own. In many families, income brought into the family by the mother’s work can keep the family out of poverty or make some of life’s materials blessings available that otherwise would not have been. Because both my husband and I worked and brought in an income, we have been able to help our children financially, even in their adult years, in ways that would never have been possible if I hadn’t worked.

And what about me? Did this double-duty ruin my health? Destroy my sanity? I don’t think so, but there appear to be many authors today who warn that this is a possibility. That is, they imply that attempting to be a wife and mother as well as a professional is just too much and sure to lead to neurosis or some sort of emotional or health breakdown. That is a legitimate concern, and working mothers need to be alert to any indication that they are simply too stressed to handle the time and energy demands made by two careers—motherhood and additional work outside or from the home.

Some reassurance can be found in the fact that, long before the modern age, mothers worked at tasks that far exceeded those involved with child-rearing and “supplemented” the care of their young children with help from older siblings and relatives who lived with the family or nearby. Think of what life on the farm was like and how the average family would not have made it if women hadn’t worked in the fields, made clothing, cooked and preserved food, all of which required major time commitments.

My father’s father was a section foreman for the railroad (he laid new tracks), and his mother cooked regularly for 15 to 20 hungry men. That meant that she had very little time for her children until the evening meal was over. As my dad was the youngest of a large family, he spent much time being supervised by his oldest sister. Even though his mother seldom left the farm (most of the vegetables were raised and canned there, and most of the meat was butchered there), he most assuredly had a “working mother.”

Families are smaller today, and the extended family pattern is the exception rather than the rule, so that kind of arrangement is rarely available to help our super-mums. We have to rely on what has become the newest, and possibly most important, human service field of the late 20th century—child care.

What about the Children?

The use of any sort of non-maternal care, especially for very young children, has created much anxiety in mothers throughout the world. At different time periods, people have worried about different possible consequences. When I was a young parent, the greatest concern with shared care was that the arrangement might prevent the child from failing to develop a secure attachment to the mother. Certainly that was what I worried most about. But, over the past 20 years, a great deal of research has been done on this issue. Although the findings are complex and difficult to condense into a brief statement, a good summary would be the following: if the child has a good relationship with the mother prior to use of any supplementary care, and if that non-maternal care is of high quality, one should not expect a weakened or insecure attachment. That is a very encouraging finding.

In today’s world, with the strong national emphasis on early academic achievement, a probably greater concern is that the child in supplementary care will not get enough stimulation to allow the expected amount of progress in acquiring math and literacy skills. Here again, the quality of the supplementary care is the critical factor. In high quality care, which I call educare, the young child will have learning opportunities that most mums cannot fully provide on their own. But even if a child is in “designer” care with highly qualified teachers and an abundance of toys and learning opportunities, the good mother is not going to stop loving her child, reading to her or him, arranging special trips, etc. Sharing the care, if quality is high, can definitely provide a boost to early academic learning.

What about mum?

As indicated above, mothers who work outside the home and still try to be good parents can become over-stressed. I’m sure it occurs a great deal. But we are our own best barometers of whether it is happening. Can’t sleep? Tired all the time? Snap at your children or their father at the slightest provocation? Aren’t enjoying life? Feel at the end of the day that you can’t face tomorrow? If you have these symptoms, find a way of altering daily routines both at home and at work. Rethink your priorities and reorganize your life so that the entire family will function better. But, whatever you do, don’t put yourself down because you’re a working mother. You deserve praise for what you are doing, not censure.

In a companion article I share some tips that helped me get through the challenge of trying to be a good mother and a dedicated professional at the same time. When you consider that my entire professional career has been devoted to research on what kind of supplementary care offers benefits to young children, and to attempts to gain public support for upgrading quality in such care, you will understand just how close this issue is to my heart. Look for the article under the title, “Making Work Work.”

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education