I was driving home from work two weeks ago when my 4-year-old asked a question that completely unnerved me.
"Mommy, don't I have gymnastics today?"
It was 6:10 p.m. Her class starts promptly at 6, and I still had to pick up my 18-month-old son from day care. We weren't going to make it to her class, which runs just 45 minutes.
Later that night, after putting both kids to bed, I crawled into my bed and cried. What kind of mother has to be reminded by her 4-year-old of an appointment?
That one incident of forgetfulness fed into this huge guilt trip I've been on about my decision to work outside my home. I was really in a funk until I began reading the results of a new study called "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents."
One of the major conclusions of the study, conducted by work-family researcher Ellen Galinsky, was that kids say they don't mind if their parents work. The majority said they were happy when their parents were happy--and therefore less stressed.
"Ask the Children" was based on a survey of 1,000 children ages 8 through 18. Galinsky, who is president of the Families and Work Institute, also conducted a representative survey of more than 600 employed mothers and fathers and interviewed 175 children and parents in 15 states.
"I've discovered that many of the debates we've been having about work and family miss the mark," Galinsky said.
For example, she points to findings in her study that show that only 10 percent of children say they wish their mothers would spend more time with them and 15.5 percent say the same about their fathers. Out of 265 written responses from children answering the question "What would you like to tell the working parents of America?" only 2 percent of the children said, "Stay home."
Most important, the study concluded that whatever choice you make, don't stress about it. Thirty-four percent of the children wanted their mothers to be less stressed out, and 27.5 percent said the same of their dads.
Of course, any set of survey responses must be viewed skeptically, even more so when children are the subjects. But the message this study ultimately communicates to working parents--well, really, working mothers--is to stop feeling guilty.
"The point of 'Ask the Children' is to look at why parental guilt is so deeply embedded in us, when the research indicates that it needn't be," Galinsky wrote in the introduction to the study.
I know why it's deeply embedded in me. The truth is I know I'm the very best day-care provider for my children. Even though my kids are in wonderful day-care situations, they prefer spending their day with their dad and me.
But the other truth is that I love my day job. Getting a good job and having my own paycheck is what I was raised to do.
So I've had this tug of war of conscience. I beat myself up. I cry. I whine. I guilt-trip.
"Guilt is like a fever, and it means something is wrong," Galinsky said in a telephone interview. "Guilt means there is an expectation that is out of sync with reality."
That's certainly true for me. I've been caught up in this internal struggle over whether I should be employed, and it has streaked my hair with gray strands.
Although I envy, admire and respect mothers and fathers who have chosen to stay home and work with their children, this study has helped me understand and appreciate the choices I've made.
"If the findings in this book are simply read and reported as another study that weighs in on whether mothers should work or shouldn't work, that would be a terrible misreading, a black-and-white rendering of a full-color portrait," Galinsky wrote. "This study, like many others, shows that the impact of parental employment on children depends on a number of factors, including whether the parent is doing what he or she thinks is right."
"Ask the Children" hit home for me, literally. I'm not listening to the critics anymore or comparing myself with other mothers. The life I've chosen for me, which means continuing my writing career, is right for my family. The bottom line is when I'm happy, I make my kids happy and our life is good.
"If you are doing what you think is right and raising your children with good values and connecting with them, then that's what's important," Galinsky advised.
I'm considerably calmer these days, having driven out many of my demons about this debate. As a result, last Tuesday my daughter did not have to remind me of her gymnastics class. She did, however, have to remind me of one thing.
"Mommy, don't forget you said you would play Barbie with me when we get home."
Man, I had hoped she would forget that. But what's a working mother to do?
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. Join her online tomorrow at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com for a live discussion of this column. Her guest will be Ellen Galinsky, author of the study "Ask the Children." She will be talking about the study tomorrow on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington at 6:40 p.m. on WHUR (96.3-FM) Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
How to Navigate Work
Ellen Galinsky, author of the new study "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents," offers a number of suggestions to help improve the quality and amount of time that employed parents spend with their children. Some of her recommended strategies, many of them culled from working parents:
* Prioritize and set realistic expectations of what you can accomplish at work.
* Say no when you need to.
* Use technology to help meet the demands of your job. For example, maybe you can answer your e-mail after your children have gone to bed or before you get them ready for school or day care.
* Get help when you need it. Saying that you need help in managing your workload is not an admission of failure.
* Restructure your time or working space so that you have fewer interruptions, which can help you leave on time. Post a sign (it can be humorous) near your workspace saying "No interruptions."
* Phase out work at the end of the workday. Try meditating at your desk for a few minutes before leaving. Use the drive home to switch out of the "work" mode.
* Develop rituals to help you make the transition from work to home. One mother in the study said she makes a point of changing her clothes before giving her preschoolers a snack. For one mother, it goes beyond changing clothes. The transition into her "home" vs. her "work" mode involved changing her tone of voice and demeanor.
* Get as organized as you can the night before. Getting clothes set out, lunches made, and homework or work ready to go the night before can prevent last-minute crises and stress.
* Change your perspective on goodbye. Rather than seeing goodbye as a loss or rupture, help your children approach the departure with anticipation of what the new day can bring.