Nothing in the Mommy Wars takes on as much weight as the choice to return to work or not. A friend of mine has a son who was asked, “What kind of mom do you have? I have a stay-at-home mom,” to which my friend’s son responded, “Oh, I have a stay-at-work mom.”
The phrasing of this–what kind of mom do you have–brings a tremendous amount of guilt and unhappiness. Women who work (some of them, anyway) tell me they feel guilty about not being with their child every minute. Those who don’t work (some of them, anyway) tell me they feel isolated and resentful at times. And even when we are happy with our choices at a personal level, it can feel as though there’s a lot of judgment coming from both directions.
This has got to stop. All this cross-parental judgment is unhelpful and counterproductive, and this is no different. Also, this discussion ignores the fact that this really isn’t a choice for some families.
Structuring the decision
If you are fortunate to have a choice on whether or not to return to work, I’d argue that there are three questions you should ask yourself. What is best for your child? What do you want to do? And what are the implications of your choice for the family budget?
It should be okay to say you made this choice because you wanted to work or wanted to stay home. I’ll say it: I am lucky enough not to have to work. It isn’t that I like my job more than my kids overall–if I had to pick, the kids would win every time. But the “marginal value” of time with my kids declines fast. The first hour with them is fantastic, the second less good. By hour four, I’m ready for a glass of wine or, even better, some time with my research.
Working parents and a child’s development
Let’s start with the first question: Is it better (or worse) for your child’s development to have one parent stay home?
This is a challenging question to answer. First of all, there are many differences in a household besides who works and who stays home. Second, what your child does while you are at work is likely to matter tremendously. Finally, working means money. And money also may be useful for your family, or open up opportunities you and your children wouldn’t have otherwise.
But looking at the data we do have, we can start with a place where we do have some causal evidence: The impact of a parent staying home in the first couple of years. There is sometimes a bit of nuance in the results. Children in families where one parent works part-time and the other works full time tend to perform best in school, though I would argue that the working configuration matters less than how the families approach parenting. Some people have also argued that if both parents work–and, specifically, if Mom works–their daughters are more likely to work in the long run and show less evidence of sex stereotypes.
My view is that the weight of the evidence suggests the net effects of working on child development are small or zero.
The benefits of parental leave
The United States has subpar maternity leave policies. Many people in the U.S. have no paid leave at all, and even unpaid leave is typically capped at 12 weeks and is available to only about 60% of working people.
But parental leave appears to be beneficial. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that babies do better when their mothers take some maternity leave. In the U.S., for example, research has shown that when the government introduced FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act), babies did better. Premature birth went down, as did infant mortality.
This is all to say that if your job offers parental leave, you should take it. If it does not, it is worth considering whether you can take some unpaid leave. Some states also have paid-leave provisions, and hopefully, more will introduce them over time. You can sometimes put together multiple state programs to create a longer paid period. Even if you can cobble together only a few weeks, the benefits for your child may be worth it.
How returning to work impacts family budget
When it comes to the issue of budget, this issue is complicated. It requires thinking about the income of each parent, and the cost of childcare. And ideally, you’d think about both of these in both the short and long term.
A first step in figuring this out is to confront the situation. What would your family income be with one parent staying home versus both working? What are the realistic childcare costs? This is the first piece of the calculation. But it shouldn’t be the last.
Remember that the calculus changes as your child ages. Your kids will get less expensive as they grow up. And if you stay in the workforce, your income will probably go up (this depends a bit on your job, but it’s true for many people). So even if working doesn’t seem like a good deal for the first few years, it may be a good deal in the long run.
You also want to think about what economists call the “marginal value of money.” Let’s say your family would be better off in terms of income if you worked. How different will your life be? What will you buy with this money? If it doesn’t make you happier, then it isn’t worth much, even if it is money.
Whether or not all adults in a household should work outside the home isn’t a straightforward choice for most people, and it’s nearly impossible to give blanket advice. Ultimately, it comes down to what works for your family.
By acknowledging that the choice to stay home or not is just that–a decision, with factors pushing you in various directions–we can perhaps start to move away from the judgmental attitude that seems to crop up on both sides of the aisle. Is that too much to ask? I think not.
This article is adapted from Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool by Emily Oster. It is reprinted with permission from Penguin Press.