In Day Care, the Ends Aren't Everything

Last Sunday, after eating scrambled eggs and donuts for brunch, we shifted to the living room for coffee and conversation with our guests, a young newly married couple in the throes of a job search. He, a recent engineering grad is in full-on résumé mode. Suit at the ready, he's pursuing every possible lead so he can provide for his family. She, a liberal arts grad, is content to see where his job search takes them and then look for work once they're settled. They've been married one year and are ready to start their family. Best samples for Vanessa-5

As they talked through their prospects, including one offer that would pay him less than their minimum budget, she teared up with the reminder that she may have to "work indefinitely." If Leah McLaren were in the room, she'd undoubtedly encourage my friend to buck up, get a job she loves and stay with it. Even after the babies arrive. Such is her advice in her recent column "Ditch the guilt, working moms: the kids are all right."

She writes,

... intense stay-at-home mothering isn't the way human relationships work. Parenting involves a lot of chores, but ultimately it's a relationship that, like all relationships, requires delicacy and balance. Even the new mothers who I do know are quitting their full-time jobs these days are doing so in order to pursue more flexible career options. Few if any would consider devoting themselves completely to child care. This is because most women know instinctively what this study and others suggest: that parenting 24/7 won't make you a better mother any more than quitting your job to take care of your spouse will make you a better wife.

Sure, your three-year-old would prefer it if you sat on the floor playing Lego with him all day, but he'd also prefer to eat nothing but Froot Loops. That's the thing about three-year-olds: They don't actually know what's good for them. And they certainly don't know what's good for you.

It was only a generation ago that married women were made to feel selfish and “unnatural” for having careers of their own. Yet miraculously our partners thrived and now our kids will, too. So do yourself and society a favour, moms: Ignore the guilt, buy a new suit and get back to work as soon as you want to.

In McLaren's world, it's all about the Mommies.

The real question is: Is staying home with babies generally good for the mental development and behaviour of most new mothers?

My take, based on the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of my peers, 80 per cent of whom are in the throes of early parenthood, is: absolutely not.

The problem with McLaren's view is what's missing: the babies. It was fairly easy for me to balance work and baby when we only had one. And I worked from home. But Zoe's arrival upped the ante. As I wrote in Start Your Family,

I was figuring out what mothers have known for generations — your child wants you, all of you, and he isn't interested in being a second-tier priority. For all the things you might want to hold on to and fit a child around — your work, your lifestyle, your identity — your child needs you to be the one doing the fitting.

To sacrifice so much, for someone so small, is a call many in our culture never consider. At least not seriously. McLaren is certainly not alone in her zeal to dismiss mother-guilt. In Home-Alone America, author Mary Eberstadt says,

Of all the explosive subjects in America today, none is as cordoned off, as surrounded by rhetorical land mines, as the question of whether and just how much children need their parents — especially their mothers. In an age littered with discarded taboos, this one in particular remains virtually untouched. ... For decades everything about the unfettered modern woman — her opportunities her anxieties, her choices, her having or not having it all has been dissected to the smallest detail. ... the ideological spotlight remains the same: It is on the grown women and what they want and need.

It turns everything upside down when you shift from thinking about what set-up would be optimal for you, to thinking about what would be best for a child. In a startling insight, author and mother Danielle Crittenden applies such upside-down thinking to day care:

So far as I know, there has never been a poll done on three- and four-year-olds, but if there were, I doubt the majority would say that they are happier" and "better off" with their mothers away all day. ... A six-year-old is indifferent to the arguments of why it is important for women to be in the office, rather than at home. What children understand is what they experience, vividly, every day, moment to moment; and for thousands of children who are placed into full-time care before they have learned how to express their first smile, that is the inexplicable loss of the person whom they love most in the world.

McLaren concludes, "Your kids aren't going to suffer for it," based on a longitudinal study of 2,000 kids in the UK 1,400 in the U.S. But it's not enough that most kids who grow up in day care turn out fine. Eberstadt says,

To advocates this is where the controversy over day care begins and ends; case closed. But they are wrong. The notion that "most kids will turn out fine anyway" does not end the question of whether institutional care is good or bad; actually, it should be only the beginning. That other question, about immediate effects, demands to be answered, too. It is not about whether day care might keep your child out of Harvard ten or twenty years from now or launch him into it, but, rather, about the independent right or wrong of what happens to him today during the years that he is most vulnerable and unknowing.

Eberstadt is a realist. She knows some families will have no choice, noting, "Yes, many parents have to use day care." But she is not so calloused to the cries of the very young and vulnerable as to think necessity for some justifies day care for all. "There is a difference," she writes, "between having to use it and celebrating the institution full-throttle."

My friend's tears, at the prospect of being among those who have no choice, well-up against McLaren's vision for a generation of Mommys liberated from Legos and Fruit Loops — at the expense of their own children. They fill me with hope that Isaiah 49:15, "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" is still, at least for some, a rhetorical question.