Revisiting the mommy wars

Stay-at-home moms recently won a small skirmish in the mommy wars.

Or, at least this is how it felt when I learned that a large federal study (see lead story, P. 12) following more than 1,000 children over 10 years had found a direct relationship between time spent in child care and traits such as aggression, defiance, and disobedience.

My first child was born 12 years ago during a time when the media had become fixated on working mothers. Phrases such as "having it all" and "quality time with kids" were tossed about constantly.

This, along with Katie Couric's much-celebrated motherhood, added to the pressure I felt after my son's birth to remain on my 80-hour-a-week work schedule as a vice president in a large marketing communications firm.

Perhaps it was the 42 hours I spent in labor or my all-or-nothing nature, but a few weeks into my maternity leave, I knew that working motherhood wouldn't work for me: Time away from my son felt far worse than missed days at the office.

The company president, unmarried and childless at the time, graciously wished me the best and promised a job would be waiting if I changed my mind.

Her understanding words provided some relief as the weight of my decision sunk in: I had just tossed the equivalent of a 15-year career right out the window, and it would take at least 18 years, when my son had grown up, to prove to myself that I made the right decision.

Adding to my doubt were calls from coworkers unable to believe that I - who had risen so quickly in the firm - was walking away. One colleague accused me of abandoning the feminist cause.

Those were not easy days. I had no idea if staying home with my son was the right thing to do, even though it felt as if it were.

I had turned my back on conventional wisdom simply to be with my son every day - during the hours when the sun was shining instead of evenings after I returned home from work and he was sleepy.

Based on what I considered gut instinct, I gave up income, prestige, frequent-flier miles, and common ground with many other high-achieving women. Certainly, a study similar to the one recently published would have eased my uncertainty.

Over the ensuing 12 years, I have always looked for ways to measure the pros and cons of mommy care vs. child care. I looked for signs such as sad eyes or excessive tantrums and frankly could never find concrete proof that kids whose mothers didn't stay home were worse off.

In fact, I noticed that often the biggest troublemaker in the classroom was neither the child of a stay-at-home mom or of a full-time working mother, but the offspring of parents who showed little interest in their son or daughter at all, never appearing at school or at other child-related events.

While the stay-at-home moms and working moms settled into their parenting choices, I detected subtle competition between us.

When I accompanied my husband to business events, working mothers always asked me what I did.

Upon learning I was just a mom with a very part-time marketing consultancy, they moved away from me in search of other professionals like themselves.

I imagined the smugness they must have felt, knowing they had found a way to have it all.

I, in turn, imagined that these women couldn't possibly be spending enough time with their children if they were working the same hours as my husband. I would feel as though I had made the right choice as a mother, but always felt worse off as a professional, since my 20 hours a week spent consulting couldn't compare to their 40-plus.

Over the years, I have wondered how things would have been had I continued on my career path and opted for child care.

I know what I might have missed at home, but will never be certain what I might have missed at work.

Now that this study has been released, I can breathe more easily: All the time I spent double-knotting my 2-year-old's sneakers was worth it.

At least until the next study comes out.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com.

Andrea Marcusa is the mother of two sons and lives in New York.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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