I’m Finally Staying Home with My Kids. But Does it Matter?
Science has spent a lot of time and money trying to determine if it’s better for kids to be raised by a working mom or a stay-at-home mom. More and more kids are being raised by two working parents, with 71% of mothers working outside the home on a part- or full-time basis.
Having spent 11 years as a working parent myself, I am all-too familiar with the accompanying guilt, worry, and heartache most working mothers feel about not being home every day with their kids. I had (and still have) several dozen reasons why I believe my kids benefited from my decision to continue working. But I couldn’t help wondering what I was missing and whether or not my kids were being deprived of something important and special that their friends with stay-at-home moms were privy to on the regular.
I’ve been on the other side – the stay-at-home side – now for nearly four months and, recently, while on a weekend at the beautiful Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Montecito with my husband, I had time to consider what I know about both worlds, how my decision is impacting my family, and whether or not I’ve revised my opinions about what’s best for my kids.
For and Against
There’s no shortage of data points in favor of or against mothers working. The New York Times published and article in 2015 about a study that found the daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles, and earned higher incomes than daughters whose mother’s didn’t work. The sons of working mothers, according to the study, grew up to spend more time on housework and child care. In even better news for working mothers, the same article cites another study from 2010 that found that “in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety.”
Harvard Business School professor, Kathleen L. McGinn, a leader in the charge for gender equality in the workplace, believes gender equality is best achieved in both the workplace and the home when both parents are working. “There’s a lot of parental guilt about having both parents working outside the home,” McGinn says. “But what this research says to us is that not only are you helping your family economically—and helping yourself professionally and emotionally if you have a job you love—but you’re also helping your kids. So I think for both mothers and for fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable, for both men and women. In short, it’s good for your kids.”
On the other side of the argument, this piece, also from the New York Times suggests the opposite and argues that previous studies suggesting better outcomes for kids whose parents worked are inherently flawed and should be considered unreliable as data points. The author says the quantity of time parents spend with their children is the single most important indicator of good outcomes for children, but is an influencing factor that hasn’t been studied as closely as it needs to be.
Recently, there’s been more discussion in the media and the academic world about mothers opting to leave the workforce when their kids are slightly older. More and more women, like me, are leaving the workforce when their children are well into elementary school or even high school and their stories are strikingly similar to mine.
But by far the most frequently referenced study in the argument in favor of a parent (mother or father) staying home is a study conducted in Norway by Eric Bettinger, as associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and two Norwegian scholars. This study, they say, proves that children are better off when a parent or close blood relative is at home, full-time, to raise them. What’s the data point that has the world of child-development all aflutter, the “proof” that thousands of scientists and millions of mothers have been waiting for? It’s this: The kids who were raised by a stay-at-home parent had 0.02 higher grade point averages than the kids whose parents were working. Really? That’s the data point that is supposed to put a nail in the coffin of this decades-long debate? I don’t know about you, but this is not significant enough to move the needle for me.
Bringing it Home
I decided to let my kids speak for themselves on the matter. Although it’s only been four months, I wanted to hear from them while the memory of our former lifestyle is still fresh in their minds. Here’s a sample of what they said:
“We get to spend more time with you!”
“You keep us on task.” (Although they didn’t say so, this is probably also a con since I have to be a drill sergeant to do it.)
“My grades have improved.” (My daughter said this and, upon checking, it’s actually true, although the uptick is very small and can’t unequivocally be traced to my being home.)
“Spontaneous play dates because you know our friends and their moms better than Mimi did.” (Mimi was our nanny for eleven years and is still like a beloved member of our family.)
“We can tell you important things that happened at school right away, before we forget about them.”
“We can tell you what we want for dinner!”
“Mimi played games with me.” (From my youngest.)
“Mimi made better snacks than you do.”
“We had more money for vacations and stuff.”
While I was pleased to hear them articulate several reasons why they’re glad to have me home more, these answers don’t really move the needle much, one way or another. They sound more like children who are adapting to new circumstances and looking on the bright side, rather than kids whose lives have just been remarkably improved by a change in circumstances.
Hoping to move the needle more conclusively, I turned to my husband to see if his life is any better or worse now that I’m home with our kids. Here’s how he answered:
“You are happier.”
“You’re there for the kids.” (When I asked him to elaborate, he explained that it reassures him to know the kids are with me. I’m disciplining them, caring for them, holding them to the same standards he and I have for them, according to the same values he and I share.)
“Let’s me work longer hours.”
“The schedules.” (Until recently, I have been the one to manage our kids schedules, for the most part. Now that I’m not sitting in front of a computer, checking email every hour, the burden of managing those has fallen disproportionately onto his shoulders – an unfortunate and fixable consequence we’re working through.)
“Good for our kids to see you work outside the house.”
Again, all good feedback to have, but nothing that could be considered conclusive data points in the debate about what’s better for my family. Like my kids, my husband’s life doesn’t seem like it’s been significantly improved or worsened by my decision to stay home. Taking all this in, I had to admit that I may be the only one in my family whose life has improved since deciding to stay home with my kids.
Breath on the Needle
Then, something interesting happened; something that moved the needle, if only by a hair’s breath.
After receiving a book of sheet music from the movie “La La Land” from her grandmother last Christmas, my daughter selected “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” as one of her two piano recital performance pieces. Normally, when it comes to piano, my daughter is self-motivated; I don’t have to remind her to practice. But a few weeks ago, I noticed she was practicing less and less. Soon, she wasn’t practicing at all. She insisted she wasn’t bored, but started to resist me when I asked her to play. Something had changed.
The problem, I realized, was that the beautifully simple, languid melody that is “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” was kicking her butt. For the first time since she’d started taking piano lessons, my daughter was learning a song that fell outside the range of what came easily to her. If she wanted to conquer the song, she’d have to work harder and practice more and she secretly worried that it might not be enough. What if she put in the time and effort only to be beat in the end? She was being tested.
With only one week left to turn things around, I watched my daughter face her fears and start grinding her way up the mountain that sat before her. She practiced two, even three times a day, she watched the movie and moved her fingers across imaginary keys when I played the song in the car or at the house. She’d make note of the measures that were giving her the most trouble and play them over and over again until she got it right. And sure enough, by the end of the week, she could play the song through without any mistakes. I watched her confidence soar.
The morning of my daughter’s recital, I woke up in Montecito thinking of little else. I regretted that we were out of town and would be missing the recital, but she knew how proud we were of her and she was excited to play for a new audience. For her sake, I hoped the day would be a sort of metaphorical monument, emblematic of what can happen when she rises to meet a challenge, rather than let herself be conquered by it.
Mimi, however, was unaware of the significance of the day. “It’s tomorrow, right?” she asked me when I called her that morning. “Do I have to stay and watch or can I just drop her off?” she asked, innocently.
My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. Mimi loves my kids as if they were her own, but the fact is, she hasn’t been around. Had I not called, they would have missed the recital completely. In the end, my daughter made it to her recital, performed well, and no harm was done.
To call the day monumental might be an overstatement. But I will turn it into a monument by celebrating her accomplishment and retelling the story of when she conquered her fears through hard work and determination over and over again.
While the experience may not yet be monumental to my daughter, helping her pass this test and increase her confidence has become monumental to me. Because I’m home with them every day, I’m more familiar with the subtle, daily rhythms of my kids’ lives. When my daughter began withdrawing from an instrument she loves, I noticed. I was there to witness the change in her firsthand. It’s troubling for me to think about all the times my kids have faced life’s small tests without my even knowing, but I can’t waste time and energy worrying about that. I have to celebrate the fact that, this time, I was there; this time, I faced the challenge with my daughter and witnessed her rising to meet it.
So, does it matter that I’m home? I can’t prove that it does. The only data I can point to is subjective. But I believe it mattered for my daughter in this instance and I think there’s a strong possibility it will matter again in the future – for her, for my husband, or for another one of my kids.
The studies suggesting a mother’s work status has positive or negative consequences for her children will remain inconclusive for two reasons: science can’t measure a parent’s love for their kids and love transcends a parent’s work status.
For now, I’m right where I want to be, present in and bearing witness to the lives of the people I love every day. That matters to me very much and I don’t need a data point to tell me so.