Let's revisit maternal employment.
• Women today are in the workforce in large numbers, representing 47 percent of the U.S. labor force.
• Sixty-five percent of married mothers with children worked outside the home in 2011, compared with 37 percent in 1965.
A recent Pew survey titled "Breadwinner Moms" notes that those polled agree that the family benefits economically when mothers work, but 74 percent think it makes it harder to raise children, and half think it is harder on marriages. When asked if women should return to their traditional role, 79 percent disagree, but half think children are better off with Mom at home.
This has long been a controversial subject. Millions of words have been written on whether children are better off with mother at home versus being in child care or tended by a sitter or nanny, and how maternal employment affects the mother.
Everybody knows that children need parenting. The human mammal is helpless at birth, and it takes at least two decades of family care to teach children all they must know to survive on their own.
For most of human history, childrearing was shared by the extended family. The mother-alone model is a product of the Industrial Revolution that separated work and home, and a patriarchal culture that depended on the domesticity of women.
Last week in a New York Times op-ed piece, Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Washington, noted evidence that working outside the home and a woman's well being are correlated. "At all income levels stay-at-home mothers report more sadness, anger, and episodes of depression than their employed counterparts," she wrote, citing the latest Pew study. And Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske's longitudinal study of employed women found that they are in better physical and mental health at age 40 than women who did not work for pay.
And what do we know about the children? Are children of employed mothers different from those raised by a stay-at-home mother? Studies have not found a difference in children's school achievement or behavior. Yes, employed mothers in 1985 spent less time with their children than in 1965. But the good news is that both mothers and fathers spend more time with their children today. Coontz writes, "Employed moms spend fewer hours per week with their children than stay-at-home mothers but spend more time with their children than homemakers did in 1965!"
Participatory fatherhood may be one of the best things going for today's families and children. My son is a full-time dad during the day when his wife works. Father works at night. Baby, who will be a year old this week, is thriving. Children whose parents share in child-rearing are enriched by contact with two loving adults. And children need a father who is in their lives.
I know from personal experience that a mother working outside the home can raise children with strong values, high morals and good manners. My mother worked and both my sister and I turned out well. I worked outside the home and my children make me proud. Did I ever wish my mother was home when I was growing up? Of course I did. Did my children wish I spent more time with them? I know they did because they did not hesitate to tell me so then and again when they were grown!
Was it difficult to have a demanding job and raise children? Very much so, but I was willing to accept big trade-offs. I never had enough time to do many things that I wanted to do. I had little time for friends or entertaining. Because I love to fly, if time permitted I would have taken flying lessons.
When it came to discretionary use of time, I chose to put my children first because I wanted to be with them. On beach vacations I watched parents wind-surf or scuba all day long while the kids stayed with sitters. I planned our vacations so I could spend time with my children building sand castles or beachcombing for shells. (Right, I never learned how to scuba either!)
The Mommy Wars between those mothers employed outside the home and those stay-at-home mothers is so yesterday.
Our task today is to figure out what happened to the former two-parent family, the traditional American family with strong values that built the American middle class. Bad news from Pew: In 40 percent of households with children, the mother is the sole or major breadwinner. These "breadwinner mothers" come in two distinct groups: 37 percent are married and earn more money than their husbands do, so this arrangement makes economic sense; 63 percent are single mothers. The first group has a median income close to $80,000; the latter group earns a meager $23,000. Children raised in poverty and inadequately educated by inferior schools can grow up to be a drain on the economy instead of contributing members of society.
What I wrote in this column in 1997, still stands: Our nation needs to commit to the reality of today's families.
If policy makers were realistic and stopped pretending all mothers are at home, public preschool would start at age 3, parental leave would available to all parents, and there would be quality child care for all families who needed it.
Do we want family values? We better start by valuing families, the kinds of families we need to rebuild our middle class and help us prosper as a nation. And we better start quickly before the American Dream turns into a nightmare.
Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal and private answer to your question.