Jewish World Review March 18, 1999 /1 Nissan 5759
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The new study by University of Massachusetts psychologist Elizabeth Harvey, which found that a mother’s employment does not harm the children’s cognitive and emotional development, is no exception.
This report, publicized by the American Psychological Association, generated a flurry of positive coverage (despite many feminists’ belief that the media are hostile to women who overstep traditional roles). Then came the criticism from conservatives who reacted as though parents were being given carte blanche to neglect their children.
In an op-ed piece in Investors Business Daily, psychologist and Independent Women’s Forum board member Diane Fisher challenges the methodology of the research. She and other critics (including JWR’s Tony Snow ) note that the study, an analysis of more than 6,000 cases from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, was based on a rather atypical population sample. Unmarried, poor, uneducated mothers were significantly overrepresented.
Harvey admits the results may not be applicable to "older, higher socioeconomic status parents." These findings, dissenters say, should be read as supporting welfare-to-work reforms, not the middle-class dual-career lifestyle.
The question of demographics is a legitimate issue. But there’s a certain irony here. A few years ago, psychologist Jay Belsky and David Eggebeen analyzed earlier findings from the same sample indicating children were somewhat more likely to suffer from behavioral problems if their mothers worked in the first two years. (It now appears these effects are temporary.) Then, defenders of working mothers were the ones who said the study was flawed by its unrepresentative sample.
These flaws didn’t keep conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher from invoking the Belsky-Eggebeen study in an article in the National Review about the harms of day care. Looks like both sides in the working-mother debate can misuse science to serve politics.
Fisher writes that there aren’t enough studies on "the impact of work on children of high-functioning, high-income mothers." She suggests that since such women can provide a better home environment, their work outside the home may put their children at more of a disadvantage relative to their peers with full-time mothers.
But one could easily argue the reverse: Children who live in poverty, often in dangerous neighborhoods, should suffer more if deprived of a full-time mom — particularly if there’s no dad. (In two-parent families, studies show, fathers largely make up for the parental time deficit created by mothers’ employment.) Affluent parents, moreover, can afford better day care. And educated women who worked in interesting jobs before having children are probably more likely to be unhappy at home, which may well affect their kids.
In fact, some data (summarized, for instance, by Theodore Greenstein in 1993 and 1995 in the Journal of Family Issues) show that children of mothers with good occupational prospects may fare worse when the mother does little or no work outside the home.
The vehement reaction to studies suggesting that working mothers’ children are OK is to some extent understandable. Stay-at-home mothers may see such reports as a devaluation of what they do. But it’s important to remember that no study says parents don’t matter. A recent National Institute for Child Health and Human Development study seen as giving day care a stamp of approval actually found that children of working parents are far more affected by the home environment and the parent-child relationship than by the quality of nonmaternal care. Incidentally, nonmaternal care doesn’t have to mean being dumped in a day care center; often, it means care by a grandparent or by the father.
The "mommy wars" may not be easy to resolve. But maybe, for starters, we can start to
recognize that mothers have other choices besides working 80 hours a week or giving up all
outside work — and that fathers as well as mothers should have both the choice and the
responsibility to balance their career ambitions with their obligations to the