‘Working Mom’ Survey Only Discloses Assumptions

Today people are talking more about the American family, studying it, exposing its foibles and assigning blame.

Groups have sprung up all over the country devoted to the family, to preserving its values--or at least to arresting their decay. Such talk is ubiquitous. By now we recognize the code.

The tone here is conservative, often archly so. The “family values” people point to the past, with Dad working and Mom staying home.

Some believe this is the way God meant things to be, the foundation that made America strong. Others simply feel more comfortable, more settled, with life as it used to be.


The other day, yet another survey on the American family was handed down. It, too, speaks in the same code.

A majority of the nation’s pediatricians, the survey found, think working mothers may be hurting their children when they spend most of the day on the job. A majority of the nation’s pediatricians are men. Most of their wives stay at home.

So a mother’s place, read the message between the lines, is in the home raising her kids--if she cares about them at all. Fathers aren’t mentioned. I don’t recall anybody studying the effects of their workday absence on the home.

According to the survey, which was sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Working Mother magazine, 68% of the 1,600 randomly selected physicians think that mothers who hold down full-time jobs might be doing harm to their children who are under the age of 6 months.

Extend that to children under 1 year old, and the percentage drops to 61; extend it to the age of 3, and the percentage falls to 52.

But look behind the numbers and some interesting differences emerge. The female doctors weren’t nearly as concerned as the male ones, and the young had a more relaxed attitude about working mothers than did the old.

Of the women surveyed, 63% were working mothers themselves. Only 27% of the male pediatricians had wives who worked full time.

Half of the female doctors were concerned that babies under 6 months old could suffer because their mothers had jobs. This contrasts with 77% for the men.

Only 37% of the women had reservations about mothers’ working when their children were between 6 months and a year old, while 73% of the men did.

This was a poll of gut feelings and personal observations. Scientific evidence was not involved. Female and male pediatricians, mothers and fathers, see each other’s parental roles differently, mirroring society’s divisions between women and men.

Many of us want to see parental roles change so as to occupy a more equitable middle ground. We believe this would be best--for Dad, for Mom, and especially for their kids.

Fathers can nurture too. When they get the chance.

True, more companies and even some state governments are offering fathers time off to care for their kids. Many men say they would like to do this in principle, but when the opportunity arises, few of them really do. A week off the job is just about max.

Money, certainly, is a prime consideration. Paternity leave usually costs. And with most mothers working, two breadwinners on leave is more than most families can afford.

So when families must choose, guess who’s picked? Mom should stay home, whether it’s to care for an infant or to nurse a third-grader down with the flu. That’s natural, the way it has always been. And, after all, Mom’s paycheck is usually less.

But there is something else in play here as well. It is society’s point of view.

In the working world, men who take fatherhood too seriously can wave promotions good-by. That can mean stress, and less money. In short, a mess.

The same scenario can apply to working mothers, of course, but somehow the negative consequences cause less anguish.

So the answers are far from clear-cut.

The “family values” people say economics must come second, that the dividends of Mom’s at-home labor will yield strong, wholesome kids. If mothers choose to ignore this message, out of necessity or out of will, then mothers, they say, must accept the blame.

Fathers are once again off the hook. Their place, on the job, is unquestioned and secure.

Sure, things are changing. The female pediatricians, for example, see far less peril for the children of working mothers than the male ones do.

Fathers, in small but growing numbers, are liberating themselves from the job and finding that they like staying home with their kids.

Nonetheless, yet another survey has given working mothers new cause to fret. What, they worry, if these doctors are right? Then they feel guilt, and that compounds their stress.

Some women friends of mine read the pediatricians’ survey and immediately became annoyed. “Who do they think they are?” these women wanted to know. “How can they know what’s best for my kids?”

Others, too, are angry about the larger assumption behind such research--that it is women who must shoulder most of the responsibility for kids.

It’s easy, of course, to vent frustration at a survey. It is there in black and white. But although society’s presumptions about mothers and fathers are harder to get at, challenging them makes for a more noble fight.