Stay-at-home mom frustrated with media

I am a stay-at-home mom. I am frustrated by media reports that say it makes no difference whether I stay at home or work outside the home. I am with my children constantly and love being close to them. How can it be children are not negatively effected when they only see their parents two hours each day?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You bring up a matter close to the heart of every mother. Decisions around time and parenthood are often complex and frustrating. And our times are particularly difficult for the mother who chooses to stay home to raise children. Unfortunately, research on work, parenthood and effects on children become overly simplified, leading women to polarize rather than unite around motherhood.

Mothers who choose to stay at home to devote themselves to the needs of their children feel devalued by the unpaid, and still largely invisible work of nurturing. Mothers who pursue work outside the home feel guilty that they are not "good" mothers because they are not available to their children at all times.

Sadly, society has saddled women with two contradictory messages. Until very recently, the implication has been that "good" mothers stay home to be with their children. Yet, mothers receive little emotional support, respect or acknowledgment for the work of primary caretaking. In a society that devalues the work of nurturing, it is not surprising that our teachers and childcare professionals are on the bottom of the pay scale! Or that mothers who make the choice to stay at home may find themselves isolated and vulnerable to becoming depressed rather than fulfilled.

You are right to be upset by overgeneralizations of research, which extends interpretation beyond its defined area. Let's attempt a deeper look at these media headlines in an effort to unify, rather than divide us as women and as mothers.

To begin with, research on working mothers and positive effects on children's self-esteem is limited to school age children. In addition, positive effects are not found in children whose mothers do not have satisfying work. This points us toward focusing on separating out early childhood development from needs of school age children -- and the importance of a mother's self-esteem on her children.

Despite societal myth, the key to "good" parenting is a comfortable fit between parent and child. The arrangement must meet enough of the child's and parent's needs at any given moment in time, in order for both to sustain emotional health and well-being.

Early childhood development requires a primary caretaker which is usually best filled by a parent. But every mother-child relationship must accommodate the needs of both to achieve a successful fit.

The benefit of daycare, later in childhood, should not diminish the importance of parental presence in first two years of life. It is desirable to make time available to meet the dependency needs of your child in the early years of development to best nurture the security needed for later independence.

If a parent works outside the home, with only two hours per day during the week to be with children, it is important that quality time be spent in the evenings and on weekends, and that quality daycare provides safety, emotional security and appropriate stimulation. If the quality of the parental relationship is strong and positive, and the quality of daycare is high, the child will likely fare well. Depending on the nature of the parent-child relationship, such a child could, theoretically even fare better than a child home with a parent who is physically present but not providing the stimulation needed. (Sometimes a tall order for a stay-at-home parent!)

There could be a danger that a working mother who wants to have children may interpret such media headlines to mean that her presence does not really matter! If such research is used as a reason to ignore the primacy of the parent-child bond, children will suffer. Parenthood does require significant compromise. The misinterpretation of research to support the belief that parenthood does not have to change your life is clearly going in the wrong direction. No research in support of working parents should ever be used to deny the sacrifices necessary to put your children's needs ahead of your own. But we also must stop short of martyrdom. No child benefits from a mother who never develops any interests or activities outside of her own children.

Stay-at-home mothers like yourself can create wonderfully nurturing and stimulating family environments which can satisfy both children's and adult's needs. But this choice can be particularly problematic in an age when 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.

Women who make this choice must rely on the security of a strong and healthy partnership. Refer to my article, Becoming Parents in the Making Healthy Families series for a discussion on valuing the work of nurturing equal to the economic needs in family life.

It can be a very hard time to be a stay-at-home mother. With the increased choices, women like yourself who chose to devote their full energy to the home and care of their children do not get the support and respect deserved. Women everywhere grapple with how to best provide for their children. However, women and families vary widely. No one answer will ever be the only right answer. What really matters is that your choice is the right one for you and your children.

Although your work does not bring in a dollar figure, do not mistake its true value. The work you do as a mother is priceless!

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