What really happens to children of mothers who work and to children of mothers who stay at home full-time?
The psychiatric community has tried to answer that question for a long time. But conclusions are hard to come by in an area so clouded by subjectivity, emotion and popular opinion.
Most of the studies today are yielding fairly good news for the working mother. Researchers Jay Belsky at Pennsylvania State and Laurence Steinberg at the University of California, Irvine, say recent studies of the effects of day care -- where the child experiences stimulation and social interaction -- indicate that it does not interfere with mother-child attachment.
That's not to suggest there is no difference between day-care children and home-care children. Canadian investigators Delores Gold and David Andres found that the children of working mothers had broader conceptions of sex roles than children of nonemployed mothers. Girls of employed mothers, for instance, felt that activities like household chores, child care, discipline and decision making were equally appropriate for both sexes, while children of at-home mothers divided those activities into male and female camps.
Children who spend some of their early years in day care have also been found to be more sociable, to relate more readily with other children, and to be better socially adjusted in school, according to Belsky and Steinberg. The flip side: Children in day care have less tolerance for frustration, higher levels of impulsivity, and are less cooperative with adults.
A 1975 Danish study by psychologist Terrance Moore found that boys who had home mothering until age five were more sensitive, conforming, self-controlled, timid, school-oriented, and had a rather strict conscience. Moore projected that in the future these boys could be expected to accept self-blame more easily and, under severe conditions of stress, to experience physical symptoms like migraine headaches or ulcers. The other group of boys -- those who had alternative care, such as nursery school, day care or a baby sitter -- were generally more aggressive, nonconforming to parental requirements, and more influenced by their peer group. As grown-ups, they may show their feelings more directly, be more open with others, and, under extreme stress or frustration, act out feelings aggressively.
Another factor in all of this, however, is the mother's feeling about the choices she has made. University of Michigan psychologist Lois Wladis Hoffman cites research that shows a mother's satisfaction with her role can make a big difference in how good she is at parenting. One study, which ranked mothers on an adequacy-of-mothering scale, suggested that women who were unemployed and satisfied with their roles scored highest, followed by working mothers satisfied with their roles. Of women who were unhappy with their roles, at-home mothers were rated at the bottom of the scale.
So how does it all add up? The evidence is varied enough to suggest that good mothers come in all shapes and sizes. The happier you are with the overall shape of your life, the better you'll size up as a parent, whether you're home from 9 to 5 or not.