Working Girl

I always get a little nervous when talking about issues like this one, because it’s such a hot topic of contention for so many people.

Let me begin by saying that I know it is necessary for many families to have both the father and the mother working.  In some situations, there are choices that could be made or could have been made that might have alleviated this need, but not in all cases.  There are situations where mothers need – for a variety of reasons  – to work outside the home in some fashion regardless of the particular economics of their family.  
While these are family decisions, I also think it’s remiss to act as though these sorts of decisions are without possible ramifications, or that there aren’t better options (assuming that economics allow for these options to be considered).  I find it amazing that we’ve reached a point where to say what research frequently validates – that mothers are more naturally inclined/equipped to stay at home to raise their children than fathers are – is tantamount to blasphemy.  
This commentary isn’t meant to denigrate women who are doing what is necessary by working part or full time in order to support their families, nor to insist that in every situation, the mother is the one who ought to stay home with her baby.  However research like what is alluded to in this article worries me.  It makes me sick because it claims one set of conclusions based on a completely different set of conclusions.  It could be that the article is just poorly written and the research it references is more solid.  The actual research is here, but I can’t access it.  Yet.  
Basically, this article states that the impact on children of their mothers going back to work when they are very, very young is not as adverse as multiple other studies have indicated over the years.  This article quotes researcher Jane Waldfogel as stating that this single study “disproves” multiple earlier studies that indicate that there are risks and downsides for children whose mothers start working within months of giving birth.  
How does it disprove these other studies – which attempted to measure the actual effects on the child?
By asking different questions and creating a whole new way of looking at the issue that doesn’t just focus on the child, but on the child and the mother together.  This study factors in additional issues such as the mother’s well-being (not sure what this means) and higher levels of  income.  And of course, with better income, better child-care can be obtained for the child.  Because the mother is working, rather than staying home to care for the child herself.  All of which will undoubtedly grant greater peace of mind to mothers returning to the work force, the article notes.  And for those who must return to work, peace of mind is definitely a bonus.  It’s clear that to Waldfogel, this is important to US as well as British mothers who don’t receive very generous maternity leaves (compared to some European countries).  
But there are nagging questions in even this overly-simplified article reporting on the study.  If the effect is so negligible, why suggest part-time rather than full-time work?  By the logic suggested, shouldn’t more excellent child care benefit the child more than some excellent child care?  No word about that.  And the article asserts the need for mothers to do something “just for them”.  I couldn’t agree more, but clearly the researchers feel that this means working outside the home 30 hours or so a week.  Or more.  In other words, if you want to do something for yourself, get a job, because then you’re productive.  Pretty convenient reasoning in economies that rely on production and consumption.  No word about a hobby, or about volunteer work, or about the many, many other ways that you can benefit yourself without necessarily going into the workforce.  
And absolutely no word at all about the impact on fathers one way or the other.  It would seem they effectively don’t exist in this study. 
To the women who work to support their family and children, I have the utmost respect for you.  That being said, I believe there is a good argument to be made that this is not the ideal situation.  New mothers need a lot of support for the heavy responsibility of caring for a baby.  I don’t concur with the author’s apparent viewpoint that a job is the best form of support for either the mother or the child.  It may be a necessity, but I don’t think it’s very wise to pretend that there aren’t repercussions in the choices we make.  

2 Responses to “Working Girl”

  1. JP Says:

    My overall feeling, and this is not scientific but mere opinion, is that kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and that any situation can be managed in a way that benefits the child. The problem, of course, is that these situations are often mismanaged and children do get neglected.

    Whenever this discussion comes up, I always think about families in Vietnam, for example. Women have no choice but to work in order for the family to survive. Often times it is the men who stay home with the kids while the women tend to the rice fields. Or, in a growing number of cases, men find work outside the home, sometimes even going overseas, leaving the wife to farm and the grandparents take care of the children. What would a study of these situations reveal?

    Regarding women going to work in the “Western” world, I remember a conversation with some Swedish neighbors. Sweden has always been on the forefront of women’s rights and women’s equality. Three quarters of Swedish women are employed, one of the highest rates in the world. However, talking with our neighbors, there are many women in Sweden who desire to stay at home with kids beyond the normal maternity/paternity leave (a generous 15 months between both parents), but these women cannot stay home because it is very difficult to make ends meet in Sweden on a single income. Thus what is intended to empower women can also enslave them.

    What irks me now is the attitude that those women who choose to stay at home in the Western world are viewed as unenlightened or overly traditional. There is this general attitude of condescension towards those women who value spending formative years at home full-time with their kids. They get bombarded with the messages of ” female empowerment,” and “taking care of yourself.”

    The study you refer to clearly plays into this dubious advice that gets passed off as gospel. The study makes the mother’s needs, and not the child’s, the primary thing. Don’t get me wrong–taking care of yourself and being empowered are good things, but life is also about making sacrifices and putting others first. Raising kids is part of the created order, and it requires physical, emotional, and intellectual sacrifices. It requires putting your kids first. Could that mean less income? Yes. Could it mean less nights out with friends? Yes. Could it mean that a career gets put on hold? Yes. But all of these sacrifices benefit the child.

    Of course we have to guard against the opposite danger, too–mothers (or fathers) who never take time for themselves. Self-sacrifice should never consume us until there is no self left. Perhaps thats why two parents is the ideal, so they can share the burden.

    Armed with a Christ-centered understanding of vocation, stay-at-home moms can be some of the most empowered and enlightened people I know.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for your comments, JP.  Definitely there are plenty of situations where working outside the home is a necessity for mothers.  But like you, I feel there is very definitely a created order, which means that everything is not arbitrary.  I believe there is a way things were created best to work.  They can work otherwise, but I think it’s dangerous to assume (as the researchers do) that any option is equally valid.

    I despise the form of ‘liberation’ that women have been and are still being sold, where their natural abilities and gifts are denigrated in favor of valuing traditional male abilities and gifts.  I despise that the ‘equality’ that women have been sold on is simply the traditional male roles – leaving women to do twice the work in many cases.  I have no problem with women who find great fulfillment in the workplace.  Lord knows they are generally every bit as capable (or more so) than many of the men I’ve worked with.  But to cast women who don’t feel this calling or who give up this calling for their children and families as somehow inferior or traitors to their gender is truly evil in my opinion.

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