A stay-at-home mother named Lydia Lovric recently lit up social media across North America with an article in Huffington Post Canada titled “Dear Daughter, Here's Why I Don't Work.” Lovric explained that she left a “fancy job” she loved to take care of her children because “your first few years are unparalleled in terms of the amount of information you will process and the things you will learn,” and Mom is clearly the ideal person to convey that information.
Lovric risked reigniting the mommy wars. On Twitter and Facebook, working mothers defended their right to a career; stay-at-home mothers rallied around the argument that having Mom around from day-to-day and hour-to-hour is better for children.
Hold your horses, Lydia. That assumption, painful to women who don't leave their jobs — fancy or otherwise — may not be right. A new report published in the Journal of Marriage and Family shows that the amount of time mothers spend with their kids has no bearing on their children's emotional well-being or their academic achievement.
Sociologists analyzed time-use data from a longitudinal study of 1,610 children ages 3 to 11 and 778 children ages 12 to 18. Even though the belief that “the proper development of children requires mothers lavishing large amounts of time and energy on offspring” is pervasive among middle- and upper-class Americans, the sociologists found no evidence to support that notion. There is some evidence that the over-12 set could benefit from quality time, but from both parents — not just their mothers.
The takeaway from this study shouldn't be that stay-at-home moms are throwing away their lives, but that mothers privileged enough to have a choice between going to work should stop worrying about what's best for the children and focus on their own needs.
It's clear that there's too much pressure on modern mothers. In her 2005 bestseller, “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner argued that middle-class Americans have come to expect “good” mothers to be “almost always on-duty.”
Whether you work or not, you have to help with homework and do the school bake sale and coach hockey and make lifelike dioramas. “You [have] to give quality and quantity time,” Warner wrote, “and if you [want], at the same time, to set your child on the path to a productive future, you [have] to model productive behavior, and keep yourself in a state of constant busyness.”
Given our cultural obsession with motherhood, it's no wonder that, several years later, in 2014, another book on parenting became another massive bestseller: Jennifer Senior's “All Joy and No Fun.” It argued that what Warner describes can make mothers pretty miserable.
Senior profiled a married working mom of two named Angie. She was so hard on herself about being a good mom that she found being at home much more challenging than being at work.
Amazingly, Angie was employed as a nurse who regularly dealt with “schizophrenic and psychotic inpatients, often in the midst of violent outbreaks.”
Research backs up Senior's point that trying to reach an unattainable ideal can't but lead to a dejected emotional state. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, all-in mothering is associated with negative mental health outcomes. “The belief that women are the essential parent was related to lower life satisfaction and believing that parenting is challenging was related to greater depression and stress.”
Furthermore, women who believe that they are the only capable caregiver “may limit help from others,” which will only compound their stress and isolation.
And, not surprisingly, there is empirical evidence that extreme maternal unhappiness is bad for children. A 2006 research review found that there is a link between depressed moms and language and cognitive delays in very young children. There's even some evidence that extremely stressed parents can negatively affect brain development in their children.
Hopefully, the newly published longitudinal study will help encourage some pushback against the “intensive parenting” dogma that has dominated the lives of middle- and upper-class parents for the last few decades.
There are rumblings of a revolt already. In 2014, the law professor and policy expert Rosa Brooks wrote an essay in Foreign Policy in which she exhorted fellow moms to “recline” — to relax their perfectionism in work and parenting. “Whether it's one more meeting, one more memo, one more conference, one more play date, one more soccer game or one more flute lesson for the kids, sometimes we need to say, ‘Enough!,'” Brooks wrote.
There is no “best” amount of time to spend with your children. As a Georgetown child and adolescent psychiatrist told the Washington Post's Brigid Schulte for her article on the longitudinal study, “I'm not aware of any rich and telling literature on whether there's a ‘sweet spot' of the right amount of time to spend with kids.”
Despite what mothers like Lydia Lovric believe, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to ideal outcomes for children. Mothers should have the confidence to believe that they know what works for themselves and their families, whether it's having a “fancy job” or leaving that behind.
Jessica Grose is a journalist and novelist. Her second novel, "The Closest Marriage," will be out in 2016.