07/15/2005 10:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mamma Mia

So many books about motherhood and work, so little time to consider them due to motherhood and work.

In recent weeks both The New Republic and The Weekly Standard have explored various aspects of the mommy dilemma in book reviews that cover the range of opinion on working and mothering. Both magazines look at “How She Really Does It; Secrets of Successful Stay-At-Work Moms,” by Wendy Sachs; the far more comprehensive piece in TNR (where I work as publisher) also considers “Perfect Madness,” by Judith Warner – much discussed in media in earlier months – and “White House Nannies,” by Barbara Kline. Did you hear the one about the biotech executive mother who puts her children to bed by intercom? Time for some mommy yoga.

The split between career and family is the obsession of the mothers I know who work, and most of the mothers I know work. There are studies that support one’s point of view intellectually, whatever it is – mothers who work provide healthy role models in addition to cash for their families, provided they are maximally nurturing and available relative to their jobs; mothers who don’t work provide nurturing and availability 24/7, and what could be better? Answer: A mom that works reasonable hours, if mom likes to work.

If working doesn’t make mom happy and mom is married to major breadwinner then 24/7 nurturing and support it is, and lucky for the kid – though it wouldn’t hurt for mom to have some hobbies, especially if she’s highly educated. These latter moms, with what I’m imagining are color-coded activity charts and top-drawer education and skills specialists of all kinds on call for her child, often seem to have too little outlet for their own intelligence and ambition. Baby Jane gets it all. (While it’s nice to learn Mandarin Chinese, Baby Jane might benefit from a little staring-into-space time too.)

At the end of the day the best thing for kids is a happy mom, not because a happy mom is more important than a happy child, but because unless mom’s a coldhearted narcissist, a happy mom makes a happy child (dads in general aren’t as torn in this specific way, so any unhappiness of theirs is out of this discussion). A happy mom role-models happiness, shares happiness, infects with happiness. Her child will have a better-than-average shot at being happy himself, no?

As long as we stick to the basic principle of engineering, when we can, what’s best for children first – which as parents and as a society we must – then our analysis of what’s best for them vis a vis mothering must be undertaken in the context of this part of the 21st century. Choices for women don’t necessarily confer wisdom and it’s wisdom about themselves that mothers need most in order to provide the particularly child-affirming, nurturing home they’ll create for their children.

Worry, but be happy.