Who could blame the small group of full-time moms, chatting in a little park near my home the other morning, for giving each other high fives. They were talking about a page-one story in the morning paper about the major new study documenting their difficult way of life as a positive force in the lives of their children.
"We sometimes get subtle put-downs from the career-mad, with the inevitable 'what-do-you-do?' question," one of them told me, "but I guess we wouldn't with the child research crowd."
In the largest long-term study of child care in the United States, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers followed more than 1,300 children in 10 cities in a variety of day-care centers. Children with the fewest behavioral problems were those with full-time moms. The children of full-time moms were a third less likely to pick fights, bully or act mean toward other children by the time they reached kindergarten.
The more time children spend in day care, the greater the risk of behavioral problems. Children from day care centers become more defiant and disobedient, more demanding and aggressive. The findings remained constant regardless of the quality of day care, the sex of the child, the financial status of the family.
The study suggests that maternal instincts and the mother-child bond is not simply something cooked up by male chauvinists of the patriarchy to keep women barefoot and in the kitchen. Some children who act up miss their moms and have trouble expressing that anger. That's not Psychology 101 so much as Motherhood 101.
In the days before the mealy-mouth word "parenting" replaced "mothering," it was a given that a mother's continued absence in a young child's life, especially before the age of 3, was not ideal. "Separation anxiety," after all, created the first market for security blankets and teddy bears to comfort a child when Mom was away.
Does this new research mean working mothers are raising little monsters and should quit their jobs at once? Of course not. The researchers found that children in high-quality day care centers score higher on language and memory tests, but no full-time mom thinks going to work will create a smarter child. But the research is humbling, and cuts through some of the arrogant rhetoric of know-it-all experts, whether feminist or psychologist, who pretend to have special insights into what's best for someone else's children.
Statistics tell only part of a complex story. Not so long ago statistics were marshaled to identify Mom as "bad," oppressing little Oedipus, and responsible for a variety of descriptions and diagnoses, including autism, homosexuality and an inability to enjoy adult love relationships.
In less than 50 years, the pendulum of public opinion swung dramatically, from supporting full-time moms culturally, emotionally and financially to one where feminists, Welfare reformers as well as many psychological theorists decided that Mom ought to work.
The loudest complaints over this latest study - legitimate complaints, it seems to me - come from women who point out that they work now because they have to, that the money they earn provides food, shelter and even education for their families. Work isn't a choice, but a condition.
Nevertheless, not so long ago mothers working outside the home were held up as models, pursuing personal fulfillment not available this side of an office or shop. Stay-at-home moms, Betty Friedan confidently assured us, suffered the malady "that had no name." The malady was "boredom" or "housewife fatigue."
Forty years later, instead of one malady without a name, we have maladies with lots of names, and one of them is called overwork, familiar to a lot of working moms.
Most of us do the best we can with what we've got, recognizing the tradeoffs. A woman might sacrifice a career in medicine to play Dr. Seuss, or give up becoming an architect to build with blocks on a playroom floor. If she works outside the home, she knows the frustration of not always being available when a baby has colic, or a fever, or needs the cuddling that can only come from Mom.
It's easy to point out the flaws in the current research, which have been exaggerated in the news, blaming Mom, ignoring Dad and discounting the contributions of the extended family.
What should we do with the new research? We could consider it provocative food for thought. It's not dogma, not yet. But there's a renewed emphasis on the importance of the special needs of the child, and a renewed appreciation of the special sacrifice of the women who give their children their physical all. The pendulum regulating parenthood never stops swinging.