Now, before we go any further, I have to say something very important: in my opinion, all mothers are working mothers. The idea that the only mothers who work are the ones who earn money outside of the home is insulting and shows a marked lack of understanding of a mother’s roles and contributions. But in the interests of keeping to the traditional use the term and staying consistent with the research I want to share today, I’m going to refer to those mothers who work outside the home as “working mothers.”
When I first had my children, I imagined spending my days with them, enriching their lives through lessons, crafts, activities, long philosophical discussions… I figured I would write, but I would only do so after they went to bed or while they were at school. My life would be about my children first, and about my career second. Life had a different plan for me though.
If you are a mother like me and you work, you probably feel a little guilty for having to work, or for wanting to work. Over the years, I’ve learned that that is completely normal. Mothers live in a guilty place. We know we’re making all sorts of mistakes, and while we are trying to do the best we can for our kids, we rarely meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves. I remember years ago seeing a cartoon that said something like, “The Nature versus Nurture debate is finally resolved: It’s all MOM’S FAULT.”
I have often felt like a bad mother because, instead of being there for every moment of my children’s lives, I am working.
What if the guilt is misplaced?
A few months back, while I was probably supposed to be working on novel revisions or a new book (or cleaning my kitchen), I came across a website that held the documents from a 1998 conference in Madison, Wisconsin called “Parenthood in America.” There are a lot of great articles at this site, and I encourage you to read them and consider the research that was done.
There was one article in particular that touched me. It was called “The Effects of the Mother’s Employment on the Family and the Child,” and it was written by Dr. Lois Wladis Hoffman, PhD, a Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Dr. Hoffman wanted to understand how children were affected by their mothers working, so she and her team examined a sample of 400 families with children in the third or fourth grade who lived in a large industrial city in the Midwest. In other words, average American children. The families in Dr. Hoffman’s study were single-parent households and two-parent households. They spanned many races and economic backgrounds.
Her results helped me feel less guilty.
If you want to read the study for yourself, you will find it here. But let me give you some of the highlights:
- “Daughters of employed mothers have been found to have higher academic achievement, greater career success, more nontraditional career choices, and greater occupational commitment.”
- “The children [sons and daughters] of employed mothers obtained higher scores on the three achievement tests, for language, reading, and math, across gender, socioeconomic status, and marital status, middle-class boys included.”
- “Daughters of employed mothers have been found to be more independent, particularly in interaction with their peers in a school setting, and to score higher on socioemotional adjustment measures.”
- “Daughters with employed mothers, across the different groups, showed more positive assertiveness as rated by the teacher (that is, they participated in class discussions, they asked questions when instructions were unclear, they were comfortable in leadership positions), and they showed less acting-out behavior. They were less shy, more independent and had a higher sense of efficacy.”
Before you think I am trying to say that all women should work, let me share one more bit of Dr. Hoffman’s study. The researchers examined not only employment status but also the mother’s sense of well-being. In other words, how happy is she with her life? They basically found something in the research that we could have figured out with our common sense – that when mothers feel good about themselves, when they are happy, when they have a positive sense of self, their children succeed. This is true of all mothers, across all criteria.
At the beginning of this post, I said that I never planned to be a working mother. I certainly didn’t. But the truth is, my career makes me very happy. I feel fulfilled, I feel strong, I feel accomplished. And that’s possibly what made me feel the most guilty – that I enjoyed something that took me away from my children. Now I know that I did the right thing for me and for my family by pursuing something that made me happy – that it actually helped my kids be happy, too.
So no more guilt. Well, not about working. (But about that ice cream container that “disappeared,” maybe a little guilt….)