The problem with the stay-at-home-mom vs. working mom “debate” is that, like many arguments nobody can really win, the issue is so often presented in black and white: either a mom works full time, or she stays home full time. Either a woman returns to a demanding job by the time her baby is six weeks old, or she “opts out” entirely.
Neither position generally represents the real lives of women somewhere in the middle, who take an extended leave and return to work later, work from home, or work part-time.
So I was intrigued by an article in Time called “Why Maternity Leave Is Important” covering a new analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers looked at outcome data on everything from maternal stress to “quality of parenting” and studied mothers and children together in a laboratory setting to score how well they interacted. Based on the study’s findings, the Time article makes two distinct points: first, it is, in general, good for mothers to work; however, trying to balance a full-time job with a three-month-old baby is a recipe for stress and depression. From the article:
Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home… But six months after having a child, while working still caused greater depression among working parents than it did among parents with 3-month-olds — an increase of 10 weekly work hours was associated with a 3% to 7% jump on the depression score — logging full time hours at the office was no longer associated with a drop in parenting quality. In fact, over the first four-and-a-half years of parenting, mothers actually enjoyed an overall reduction in parenting stress if they worked.
Sounds good, but what does it mean? There’s a lot of room between 3 months and 4.5 years, a point at which most children of stay-at-home moms are looking at starting kindergarten and many have been in part-time preschool anyway. So what is the “ideal” length of maternity leave?
I work from home, but if I had to go to an office every day, I think my ideal maternity leave would be returning to part-time work around a year, and slowly ramping up to full-time by three years.
But that’s just me. And that’s the problem with the maternity leave question – it’s so individual, depending on the mother in question, the job in question, the baby in question and about a million other factors. But I’m guessing most moms, if given the choice, would want – perhaps desperately want – more than six or eight or twelve weeks.
So I’m glad that the data seems to point to one major conclusion: considerable maternity leave is important, even if we don’t have an “ideal” length figured out yet. Because can we all, even you, Linda Hirshman and Gloria Feldt, agree that having a child is a major, life-changing event that requires transition and sensitivity and time to adjust and bond and get to know each other? (For moms and dads, by the way) and that the truly progressive thing to do is to allow parents that time so that when they do return to work, whether it’s in a year or ten years, they’ve had a chance to develop a strong family bond and are actually glad to be in the workplace? I’m guessing more women would eventually, gladly return to their jobs if they didn’t face the prospect of leaving small babies for 40+ hours per week to do it.
Maybe if we put our energies into seeking solutions that work for more mothers and fathers and children, we could finally put this tired “debate” to bed, once and for all.
What would be your ideal length of maternity leave?
These 5 women share their stories about going from Maternity Leave to Back-to-Work