Monday, January 23, 2012

Go to Work or Stay at Home: It Doesn't Matter

So should mothers work or stay at home? In a way, there is no good scientific answer to this question, because there is no way to do a controlled study (this would require forcing women randomly to stay at home or work, and obviously will not happen in a free society; maybe an opportunity for North Korea to do some good in the world?). Leaving this issue aside, however...

The real answer seems to be two-fold:
1. In general, the type of childcare (so long as it's fairly high quality) doesn't matter. Children thrive equally well with constant maternal attention, 50+ hours in daycare, or something in between.

2. BUT: it depends very much on the particular child, parent and situation. Some children will be better off in daycare; others will be significantly harmed.

I was surprised by the results of point #1. You would think that with all the hullabaloo about working mothers and the importance of maternal care and warehousing children, that there would be a significant difference between children of working mothers and SAHMs. A lot of research has been done on this topic over the last 20+ years, and the scientists doing it are in general highly motivated to find dramatic results one way or the other (since that's what makes research well-publicized and them successful), but everyone has come up empty.

Here's a link to a summary of the results from the most comprehensive study on the subject, which spanned 15 years and included over 1000 children. Results: There's basically no difference, and the (small) differences which exist are conflicting. (For example, attending a child care center slightly increases cognitive and language development, and also behavior problems.)

Even studies on the effects of staying at home for mothers are contradictory. For example, this study shows that SAHMs of small children are more depressed and less healthy than working mothers; this study shows the opposite.

What these results suggest to me is that parents should feel free to make whatever decision they like best. The whole "mommy wars" thing and angst about mothers not personally caring for their children is a waste of time.

However, there is still point #2. I will discuss this (contradictory) point in a separate post.


  1. Very interesting post. I must admit, I struggle with this personally and really only in my head (and occasionally aloud with my husband on the receiving end) as I am a working mom and my 22-mo old is in daycare for 45-50 hrs/week. My admission is that I struggle with it (sometimes the guilt comes from SAHM bloggers who tell me I'm a bad mom b/c I work which is lame that I let people I don't even know dictate how I feel) yet I have never actually done any research to see if I'm in fact harming my child by sending her to daycare.

    My gut feel is "no, she's not harmed in any way" and that my guilt is really just that I selfishly want to play with her all day and forget the whole money thing that comes from working that is actually a bigger deal than I wish to admit.

    So I think the biggest struggle for me is will I regret my choice to work in 5 years? 10 years? etc. And also my biggest fear of straight up quitting is will I be able to re-join the work force in 5 years? Unemployment is so scary, and let's face it, money doesn't buy happiness but it does buy security and giving your family the things you wish them to have. (School, vacation, eventual retirement.)

  2. Uh wow, sorry for the novel-like comment. Clearly I went off on a tangent!

  3. Lindsay, I struggle with this too (even though I stay at home; I guess mothers can't win!). I stay at home not really for my daughter's benefit (although of course it's nice for her, as the research says a nice daycare won't harm her either), but because it works better for me in terms of exhaustion/stress level, marital harmony, etc.

    But I worry a lot about the future ramifications of this decision, and how it will play out once I try to rejoin the work force. Money is really important, and staying at home usually means taking a huge hit to your future career prospects. For me it was a little easier since we moved to Singapore (so working is more complicated anyway). I still don't know what I'll do in the future though.