04/17/2012 02:19 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

Mommy, what Does 'Dignity' Mean?

In the flurry of rhetoric about whether mothers should work or stay at home, one key element is strikingly absent: What about the kids? Is a child better off when his mother is a stay-at-home mom or when she works outside the home? Surely what's best for children should be part of the current conversation?

What I know to be true from working with children and families for more than two decades is that children are happy and mentally healthy when their mothers are happy and mentally healthy. "Happy mothers make for happy children" is a mantra that I have repeated through the years to one mother after another. If a mother is positive and optimistic in her day-to-day life, her child is likely to reflect these qualities. How does this translate into both sides of the "mommy wars"?

I have seen women give up high-powered careers as doctors and lawyers because they did not feel happy about leaving their young children with a nanny or day-care provider. On the other hand, I have seen women return to work right after maternity leave because they feel that working charges their batteries and gives them more energy to be present for their children. (Having grandparents or other family available for childcare has made this decision easier for some of these women).

I have had children say to me, "my mother hates her job and should quit work," and I have had children tell me, "my mother should go back to her career because she was happier when she was working than staying home taking care of us." Children are surprisingly perceptive about their parents' moods and well-being. Kids might not always listen to their parents, but they are always watching.

Of course, financial considerations play a role in a woman's decision. Not every woman can make the decision strictly from the point of view of what will make her -- and her children -- happier. Well-to-do, married mothers, whose husbands earn high salaries, have the luxury of making a choice based on which decision, at the end of the day, will make them happier. Single mothers and less affluent mothers generally do not have this luxury. It seems that the income gap in our country extends not only to children's health and education, but even to their happiness.

Some European countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, provide government subsidies for single mothers to stay at home with their children in early childhood if they make that choice. These countries also have subsidized child care centers for mothers who work. In those countries, raising happy, mentally healthy children of all classes is perceived as a benefit to the society as a whole.

I think it's time to bring the happiness and mental health of children into the national conversation about motherhood, work and dignity. What is most important to a young child -- after his basic needs are provided for -- is seeing a smile on his mother's face and having her spend quality time with him. And what brings the smile and provides the energy to be really present for her child will be different for every mother.