There comes a time in every working mother's life when she has to consider the vexing question of whether she'll return to work once her maternity leave ends or if she will continue to stay home to take care of her child.
Let me say right off the bat that although there are a few fathers who now grapple with this question, the onus of deciding whether to quit work and stay home or continue working and arrange for child care still falls overwhelmingly on the mother.
Aggravatingly called the "Mommy Wars" (no better way to trivialize the issue than to give it an oh! so cute name, right?), the battle lines are well-marked in this debate. On one side of the line of scrimmage are the mothers who can see no way other than to stay home and take care of their children (the Stay at Home Moms or the SAHMs) and on the other side are the mothers who return to work and find alternative childcare arrangements (the Working Mothers).
SAHMs are convinced that Working Mothers do a disservice to their children by leaving their children in daycare while they go to work; they declare that women who want to go back to work after having children should not have children in the first place; Working Mothers look down on SAHMs for not being ambitious enough, for wasting their education and feel they themselves are not depriving their children of anything by going to work - that their children are brought up to be more resilient and socially adept by spending time in daycare. Both sets of mothers co-opt various sociological and psychological studies to argue their position.
Mothers on both sides have their arguments sharpened and at the ready to jab at the slightest hint of a disagreement with their point of view. Not only do they defend their respective decisions to the hilt, but they also have no qualms about declaring that their way is the right way - for everyone.
If you think this post is going one way or the other, no. I'm not going to come down on any one side of the debate. My take on this issue is this - I say, live and let live.
And there are at least three reasons for this.
First, only individuals and the families they belong to know what is best for them. They are the only ones who know their mental make-up and what the circumstances are under which they toil. So how can anyone, particularly strangers, even begin to think they know what is good for the other family? There is no one size fits all solution to this problem.
What do you say to families who need that second income - to care for an ailing parent, to pay for a sibling's education, whatever? Don't have kids? Is having children the domain of only the well-off? Even if a family does not need a second income, then are mothers bad for going back to work? What if a mother feels that she has something of value to contribute to society at large and wants to do it? Is she not allowed to bear a child?
By the same token, is a well-educated woman, thriving in a professional career, not allowed to stay home once she has a child? Why is she accused of wasting her education? Don't children deserve well-educated mothers?
Second, this is an area where quality definitely trumps quantity. A mother who spends all of the 24 hours seven days a week with her children does not automatically make her good, neither are her children guaranteed to be well-adjusted or well-rounded. By the same token, the children of mothers who work are not sad, lonely, ill-adjusted brats.
Third, and this I feel is the most important, whatever arguments mothers advance in support of their positions are defensive and reactionary. Working Mothers are attacked and therefore they go on the defensive about going to work, purportedly neglecting their children and churning out children who will, down the line, turn into aggressive misfits. SAHMs are attacked and therefore go on the defensive about staying home, purportedly wasting a professional education, ditching a job, purportedly stealing seats in professional schools from deserving men (who will not abandon careers and stay home to take care of the children, so the argument goes) and churning out children, who will, down the line, turn into clingy misfits.
Mothers on both sides of the debate make their arguments from a position of weakness, of not being comfortable with their own choices, of feeling guilty about whatever choice they make. These arguments are defensive because mothers are constantly harangued on this issue - by other mothers, by their families, by their employers, by friends who don't have children of their own (and so don't and cannot know or understand even an iota of the agony mothers go through when faced with this choice), by the media that mines this issue for all its worth.
When SAHMs put down Working Mothers or vice versa, it is a sign of the battle and doubt that are raging within their own minds. What should I do? Is what I am doing the right thing? How come she goes to work and still manages to have happy, smiling kids? She must have her priorities all wrong, or else how can she have a child and go off to work? She must like her paycheck more than her children. Her house is so beautiful and well-kept all the time and her children look so healthy and well-adjusted, but look at her, she's so dowdy! She must not have a good education, or else how could she be so happy staying at home? She must be rich, or else how can she afford to stay home (without for a minute countenancing the numerous sacrifices in terms of life style many such families make before or after the child is born in order to be able to afford the mother not working)?
None of this means that Working Mothers who escape the rigors of parenting so they can have extra pocket money to buy the latest Fendi do not exist. Nor does this mean there are no SAHMs who don't have the first clue about running a household let alone parenting. But the vast majority of mothers do not fall into either of these categories. For the most part Working Mothers put in an honest, hard day's work, rush to daycare to pick up their children, pick up grocery on the way, make dinner, help with homework, and try to snatch a few precious moments with their kids before putting them to bed; SAHMs work their butts off running a household, most times on a tight budget, keeping up with their children, trying to figure out imaginative ways to teach their children, and sincerely take pride in being their 24/7 for their children. Believe me, many of the SAHMs too dream about going back to work, to their friends, to the gossip, to the promotions and being thought of as a productive member of society (when, really, what could be better than trying to produce hale, healthy, well-adjusted citizens?). Only they have this desire to devote themselves to their kids in their growing years.
So I say it's time we got comfortable in our own skins. Let's make the choices that work for us and be happy with them. Let us not point fingers at the other mother and say, She's wrong, I'm right; I'm a better mother, she's not. God knows we have enough problems - finding good schools or daycare, dealing with a crabby boss, rising costs, a lackadaisical government, terrible infrastructure - without having to feel like we have to justify our choices to anyone, least of all to people who don't even know us. Let us give the other mother the benefit of the doubt and understand that whatever decisions families make, they must have arrived at it after a lot of thought, guilt-ridden internal debate and hand-wringing, and let us support them whatever they choose to do. Let's not judge.
The last thing either group needs is finger-pointing or blame for their choices.