IT doesn’t take much to get your average working parent feeling guilty. Tears at crèche drop-off will do it. So will a forgotten cake-sale at school. And, as for missing sports day — let’s just say that two years on and I’m still not over that one.
So, reading any one of the studies that claim that children are better off at home turns the screws.
But is it ever that clearcut? Or are there positives for children who have working parents?
For guilt-prone mothers, some studies can make tough reading.
Like the US report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which states that “children with higher quantity [hours] in non-maternal childcare showed somewhat more behaviour problems in childcare and in kindergarten classrooms than those who had experienced fewer hours.”
“Reports like that can be worrying for working parents,” says mother-of-two, Bridget Farrell. “Many of us work outside the home out of financial necessity, which makes reading these statistics difficult.”
Then there’s research from the Australian National University. It says: “One of our major findings is that non-parental care…is associated with worse behavioural outcomes.”
“For me, personally, having an excellent childcare arrangement makes me feel better, but reading this is unsettling, nonetheless,” says Bridget.
The suggestion that children fare better if cared for at home — controversial as that may sound — can have a ring of truth for anxious parents.
But there are also many studies that show that children of working mothers fare just as well as everybody else.
Silvia Mendolia’s (Wollongong University) research shows that children whose mothers work full-time do not leave school earlier or have lower self-esteem than those whose mothers work part-time.
And a widely publicised University of Maryland study found that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.
The amount of time mothers spend with children was found to have no bearing on behaviour, emotions or academic achievement.
Studies like this are hugely popular with working parents, because they tell us something we desperately need to believe.
But, actually, there’s plenty of logic and common sense to the findings:
Both studies focus on mothers, but, obviously, fathers have increased participation in child-rearing, and the Mendolia report notes that this change has had a positive effect on children.
Having a working mother has less of an impact on this generation, because fathers are more involved.
Management consultant, Yvonne Fahy, agrees. “My husband is very hands-on with the kids. He plays outside with them in a more active way than I would. He also shares the housework, which makes life easier for us all.”
Gone are the days when men read the paper while women tended to house and children, and, logically, this benefits everyone.
Mothers who work make the most of the time they have with their children, because it’s limited. That’s not to say they are doing more than a stay-at-home parent does, but they are compartmentalising.
“When you only have an hour-and-a-half in the evening, you make the most of it,” says accountant Deirdre Spillane, a mother-of-two.
“The less time you have, the more you prioritise, and having a bit of craic in the evening with the kids is always my priority when I come in from work.”
Yvonne Fahy feels the same. “The time I have with them is limited,” she says.
“So I value it more and focus on them, rather than being distracted.”
If a mother is reluctantly at home, chances are she may be frustrated, and this can have an impact on family life.
Conversely, if a mother who wants to work can do so then her overall well-being is likely to have a positive effect on her children.
“Parents who are reasonably happy and content are far more likely to bring their children up to be happy and content,” says Deirdre Spillane.
“How would a child be better off 24/7 with a parent — not just a mother — who is unhappy and unfulfilled at home?”
Yvonne Fahy is of the same opinion. “I think I’m a better mum through working, because I enjoy my job and have some ‘me time’ outside the home, which, in turn, makes me a more relaxed person when I’m with the kids.”
There are other factors, too; the financial security of two incomes can reduce stress, children learn independence, and working parents can be great role models.
So while the evidence doesn’t mean that children whose mothers work are better off than those whose mothers are at home, it tells us they are no worse off.
The children are alright, and when the guilt is kept at bay, the parents are (mostly) alright, too.