washingtonpost.com
 Advice for the Under-30 Crowd

Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 1999

Carolyn:

I am 29 and have been dating a 33-year-old man for almost a year. We have had some pretty serious disagreements about family values.

His mother stayed home. Boyfriend is also fortunate enough to be able to support a family on his salary alone. Therefore, he feels very strongly that when his (future) wife has kids, she should stay home to raise them (at least when they are very young). He maintains that a child raised by a working mother suffers from the lack of care and nurturing.

That is fine if a mom wants to stay home, but I may not. And how nurturing is a stir-crazy mom?

My mother not only worked but also went to grad school, and was still there for us. I don't have any serial killer tendencies yet. I also enjoy my independence and career--I never thought I would be asked to give up everything. That is completely unnecessary!

I think a child benefits from the quality of time with mom, not just the quantity. I have tried to explain this, but he doesn't seem to want to hear. I wish he would just accept my choice and support me. He doesn't understand that the decision to work is one the mother needs to make on her own.

--My Decision

Oh, great, drag me into this.

You may not be a serial killer, but your signature scares the hell out of me. Yoo-hoo, ever heard of "fathers"? This isn't "my" decision, it's yours and his. And if you truly view child-rearing in terms of what is and isn't "necessary," then please don't breed.

Don't get me wrong--it's not like I'm dying to side with your boyfriend. He would have wifey stay home by fiat, so the notion of shared decision-making eludes him, too. And where's his offer to stay home? It's still women's work?

I'm grown, I'm female, I'm married, I work; to say I've given this issue some thought is a grotesque understatement. To arrange my own priorities, I ranked all the basic baby-rearing scenarios (at least till school age) by desirability:

1. Stay-home parent or parent who works part time (tie);

2. Parent who works at home;

3. Happy working parents who make the kids their priority;

4. Stressed-out working parents who alleviate their guilt with trendy moronisms like "quality time";

5. Orphanage;

172. Negligent, abusive or otherwise toxic parent, working or non-.

Why does home win? For one thing, as my sister so memorably put it, for nannies it's still just a job. Having, say, Grandma baby-sit negates that particular day-care drawback, but it still leaves the other: all those lost hours between parent and kid.

The verdict on day care is complicated (and still being written), but studies indicate that the quality of care--physical, intellectual, emotional--is the prevailing factor in a child's development, not mom vs. paid care.

But it doesn't take a study to point out that the parent who chooses home and does it right will tell that child, "You come first." In return, the parent gains the intimate knowledge of a child's day-to-day life that, sorry, just isn't available on the three-hour-a-day plan.

In fact, I have yet to meet the working parents who'd refuse the one-salary option, if only to gain that slow, sweet, unstructured time with their little monsters. That's "quality time"--not the weekend ballgame in some MasterCard ad. So enough of this 40-hours-of-day-care-is- just-as-good, please.

That's the preaching. Here's the practice: I'm busy and, therefore, childless.

If I ruled the Earth, it would be tempting to hold everyone to my standard (and distribute the cash to support it), but in the end, the work question is just too personal. I know I'm not up to the 40-hours-plus-parenthood task, but it would be a neat bit of ideologic denial to then declare that no one is. As you said, your mom did just fine; plenty of working parents do, if they care enough to. Likewise, a lot of hyper-protective stay-at-home parents may as well pack up their botched little science experiments and ship them off to therapy.

That's why my rule-the-Earth standard has only one nonnegotiable condition--the kid comes first--and a set of questions:

Can you afford to reduce or drop one salary?

Is one parent in a better position to do so?

Does that parent want to?

If not, why are you having kids?

If you can't take the pay cut, do you have the dedication to be good working parents?

Whatever you decide, are you both committed to your decision? To each other?

Would you want to be your kid?

I'd make that last one a "no" in your case. Unless you both muster respect for each other's views and flexibility to accommodate them, you'll be a tense, unpleasant, incompatible pair.

And, frankly, I wouldn't want a mom who describes staying home with me as "giving up everything."

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon Friday on The Post's Web site, www.washingtonpost.com.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company