The XX Factor

Do Working Mothers Really Still Need to Justify Themselves?

At the NYT’s Motherlode blog , Lisa Belkin is reporting a follow up to a study that came out several years ago reporting that the children of working mothers were “cognitively delayed” compared to those of stay-at-home moms. Five years on, those same researchers followed those same kids and found those slight delays in some areas were outweighed by benefits in others, meaning that “the overall effect of first-year maternal employment on child development is neutral.” (No word on whether the mothers of the study continued working in the face of those initial findings.) Study authors were pleased by the positive message of their conclusions: “We can say now, from this study, what we couldn’t say before: There’s a slight risk, and here’s the three things that you, Mom, can do to make a difference,” Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, the lead author, told the Washington Post. The three things? Make more money, be more responsive than stay-at home mothers and find high-quality childcare.

But even now that the path to going back to work during your baby’s first year is paved by such an easy-to-achieve checklist (ahem), at least one Motherlode is still suffering self doubt. ” Tonight, I’m thinking about the end of my maternity leave. … I’m trying to compose a letter to my daughter to tell her why I’m going to go back to work, why I won’t be staying at home with her.” Belkin asks commenters what they’d say to their daughters or sons the night before their maternity leave ends. Without wanting to be hard on a fellow parent, I think Belkin should have turned the question around. Why does the reader feel she owes her daughter an explanation? And has her partner already penned his or hers?

But if explain we must, how about this: Dear One, your grandparents neglected to provide me with a trust fund, and your government believes that twelve unpaid weeks offered us a sufficient time to bond. Bond we did, and I love you madly. But that said, each of us must choose some employment in life, and I have chosen “X.” Having made that choice, I am determined to do my damnedest to be the best possible “X” that I can be. Doing so will make me a better person and a better parent. Love, Mom. PS: Researchers suggest you’ll probably be mostly fine, and so will I. Until taking a year off for infancy is a viable plan for an American “X,” that will have to do.