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New Study Says a Working Mom Is a Plus for Kids

05/21/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016
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My wife just forwarded me this article from The New York Times, "Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers."

It arrived in my inbox, not with the usual jaunty ping, but a rather dull thud, like it was carrying a weight that had previously been on her shoulders.

My response was to ask if this meant my being a stay-at-home parent was harmful to my child.

I mentioned it to some mothers as we waited for the kids to be released from school that afternoon. The stay-at-home mom in the group voiced exactly the same concern. Does this mean I am bad for being at home?

I know what side of my bread is buttered and who is providing the bread and the butter, so I think this study is encouraging. The pangs of self-doubt my stay-at-home friend and I felt it are nothing compared to working-mother guilt. Furthermore, you could play "Cat's in the Cradle" on continuous loop to the dads on the commuter train and their guilt wouldn't match it, either. In fact, if you did that, it would be the working moms who petitioned the railway to turn it off.

Another mother -- a working mom who happened to be free for pickup that day -- generously offered that you can find something for everyone in all these studies. In many respects, it is true. We tend to frame these debates has win-loose propositions, but really, every choice in life comes with its costs and benefits.

By then, it had struck me that the whole stay-at-home vs. working mother divide, while theoretically useful, might actually be less of a canyon and more of a continuum.

One of the mother's in my after-school group had to run off to work that evening. Part-time workers fill part of the chasm. As do volunteers. The head of the school PTA was casting a rather exhausted eye over her phone across the courtyard from us. She doesn't count as a working mom, but she is running a complicated operation on an extremely tight budget. That is much more work than some paid jobs. Do her kids see the benefits of her extra-domestic labor?

The data came from the International Social Survey Program, which asked people whether their mothers worked outside the home for pay at any point before they were 14. That is a wide metric. I would qualify as a working mom (sic), and so would my mother. Information about the number of years the mother worked or age of the children was not available, which limited the scope of the study.

The key findings were daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed, more likely to be in supervisory roles at work and earned higher incomes. Their sons spent more time on child-care and housework.

If the data had enabled a direct comparison of full-time workers and full-time mothers, would the effects have been greater? Or would the benefits of working outside the home be the same whether the parent was working part-time or full-time? Perhaps having a mother work part-time is literally the best of both worlds and confers the largest array of benefits on kids.

More study is required.

The findings don't surprise me. If parents are role models, then these are the sort of effects you would expect to see in the children of parents who work. In fairness, the article mentions the benefits of spending time with your children. They are different.

Each mode of parenting has its pitfalls. I love the image of the helicopter parent, the howling downwash from their blades stripping every nascent bud of independence from the limbs of their child. This nightmare of stay-at-home parenting in the extreme appeals to me because it's the opposite of my primary neurosis: that I am not engaged enough in my kids' lives. When I get down on myself, that helicopter never fails to pluck me out of my own canyon of despair.

Having said that, I find myself still looking for a dividing line. Is there some key attribute of work that distinguishes us at-homers from the worker bees?

When my oldest child was born, I moved from full to part-time employment, six hours a day, three days a week. I was usually at work between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but the job was flexible. I could move my hours and days fit the demands of my family. While I worked, the boys were in daycare. They got the benefit of that.

Work certainly added an element of stress to my life, which had attendant consequences to my performance as a parent. But working was also good for me, which must have had a positive trickle down effect for my kids.

Will blogging become my new work? I've noticed since I started writing I've been much more productive in all aspects of my life. There is something to be said for having an interest outside the home. I it has given me a spurt of positive energy. Or it might be that I am drugged with Prednisone to treat a case of poison ivy.

Either way, I feel like I've been a better parent since I started writing. For me, the benefit of working, which flows into parenting and therefore has a benefit for children, is the mental stimulation and engagement. My wife, who is an extrovert, would say it was the social element of being around adults. Either way, it is something that you simply can't get folding laundry, or doing first grade math homework.

Even the opportunity to ponder how on earth the study of Roman numerals is still in the school curriculum is not enough.