Working parents -- who cares for the kid?

Denis and Carol Lynch of Malden, Mass., thought things out carefully before she decided to go to work full time. They figured that Denis had few medical and other benefits in his job as a printer. Their old car had died on them and a loan was needed. They were still renting because they were unable to buy a house. And so it was agreed Carol would take on a full-time job.

Together the Lynches earn about $21,000, not exactly a lordly sum on which to raise three children.

"It's hard to bring up a family on one income," says Denis. "If Carol didn't work, I would have to get a second job."

Under the circumstances, the Lynches feel they are managing reasonably well. Denis works nights and is therefore able to help care for the children, the eldest of which is in the second grade. He changes diapers, shops for groceries , cooks dinner, and cleans. For all the added strains this places on the family , and although traditional in his views about child care and churchgoing, he seems to accept the idea of a working wife.

"She likes what she's doing," he says, "and I think it's good. It gets her out of the house and you have to do that."

"My working is mainly a financial thing," adds Carol, "but I did find that when I went back to work I was a better person. When I was home all day it was fulfilling to a point, but I could not carry on a decent conversation with an adult."

Devoted and thoughtful parents, the Lynches are representative of many trends today evident in the American family which pose new vulnerabilities as well as strengths. The most dramatic of these, of course, is the continuing movement of women into the labor force -- "the subtle revolution," as some call it. It is prediceted now that by 1990 about 55 percent of all women age 16 and over will be holding paid jobs. It is also estimated that by the end of the decade half of all mothers with children under six will be in the paid work force and that the pattern of a wife staying home to look after the children will fit only a minority of married women.

Analyzing the trend, sociologists and economists agree that the feminist movement has had an enormous impact on women's traditional attitudes toward home and family. The declining birthrate and the end of the concept of an "ideal" family as one with many children are other influences in this 20th-century phenomenon.

It is economic pressure, however, which is the predominant factor driving more and more married women into the paid work force. Whatever their personal inclinations, scholarly research shows, most mothers work because there is an economic need to do so. Today's inflation only adds to these pressures. "It's not economically viable for most women to rear their children full time," says one family analyst.

With this trend has naturally come heightened concern about its effects on family life -- both on marital harmony and on raising the children. Frictions and tensions often arise in the family when the mother is working and both parents are trying to balance jobs and family life. Divorce is sometimes the result, especially in the new social climate when women feel more able to support themselves and their children. Yet there are no data indicating that a wife's employment outside the home is the major cause of marital breakup.

On the contrary, some analysts say that the more income a family has the more likely it is to stay together. Low income and poverty frequently lead to divorce. "the higher the income the more stable the marriage," points out family historian John Mogey of Arizona State University. His statement is borne out by figures of the US Census Bureau.

Debate rages, however, on the emotionally charged subject of whether children are harmed by the absense of a full-time mother or father in the home, and how children ought to be cared for in today's changing circumstances. Many leading child-care experts believe it is essential for a mother to remain at home at least in the first two or three years of a child's life. They regret trend toward day-care centers.

"I think the movement toward day-care centers is harmful to the family," child psychologist Lee Salk told U.S. News & World Report recently. "I'm not saying that we shouldn't have such centers, but I do believe that children under the age of 3 are not ready for an organized group experience with youngsters of the same age. They need more one-to-one interaction with the significant people in their lives. If they don't get such interaction, it will have negative consequences for the youngsters later on."

"If the mother has to leave the child every day, it simply won't develop as well," says another leading child specialist."Children grow up with anxieties and insecurities, often with fearfulness about taking on responsibility. If this goes on we'll be rearing a generation of insecure people rather than rugged individuals."

Many child experts cite tragic case histories of abandoned youngsters, violence, and juvenile delinquency to support this view. It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of all children under the age of 10 may be regularly left alone or have inadequate care. "If parents aren't willing to put the welfare of their children above their own personal desires, especially during the first 10 years or so," comments a concerned sociologist, "they ought not to have children to begin with."

Generalizations about working mothers are hazardous, however. On the other side of the ledger are many specialists who argue that it is not the full-time presence of the mother or father in the home which is crucial but the quality of the time spent with a child and the kind of relationship developed, especially at early ages. Some sociologists, while not underestimating the problem of "latch-key" children, believe it has been exaggerated. Historians note that, except for the urban middle class, women have always worked, and that the concept of motherhood occupying full time was unknown through most of American history. And child experts, including Kenneth Keniston, have found that those children do best in school where the mother is happy with her life -- i.e., where she pursues a career primarily because of personal satisfaction or where she chooses to stay at home for the same reason.

"We've not really done enough research on the subject yet," comments Frances Litman, director of the Center for Parenting Studies at Wheelock College in Boston. "But I see lots of families with working mothers and youngsters under three and they are intact and healthy."

"Look at World War II and the problems of separation then," comments Laura Lein, scholar at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. "Day-care centers were developed for working mothers. Yet there is no evidence that a generation of children suffered even without the fathers present. Then we did not tell the children they were being 'abandoned.'"

Significantly, perhaps, many young adults themselves are becoming more sensitive to their responsibilities as parents. The earlier feminist pressure which made many women feel anxious or guilty if they chose to be full-time housewives, especially when their children were infants, appears to be lifting. More and more full-time mothers now speak of their work as a "career," and economists and others are beginning to estimate the monetary value of a homemaker's job -- signs of a new respect for homemaking.

Paul Glick, senior demographer of the US Census Bureau, says he even senses a "countercurrent" within the women's back-to-work movement. "I can't document it ," he comments, "but with the whole 'small-can-be-beautiful' thing coming in we may see a trend of well-educated women staying home and taking care of children."

The Badens, a middle-income family residing in a well-to-do Boston suburb, may be indicative of newly emerging social attitudes. First of all, they postponed having a child while they purchased a home and enjoyed the affluent life style their two incomes game them. Diane Baden did not necessarily want to have children, but, once the decision was made, she elected to stay home full time when the baby came.

"i wanted to be there and see if I could be a good mother," said Diane as we sat chatting in the grassy yard of the couple's sturdy home. "There was a daily change in the child's development and I didn't want to miss a thing."

"She surprised us both by how she took to motherhood," put in her husband, Cliff, a college administrator.

"But we always intended that this should be a shared experience," Diane went on, recounting how the two deliberately shared in the care of son Joel and the household work. Cliff, it turned out, decided to work only four days a week when Joel was six months old so he could have the full experience of looking after him. He was able to do so because Diane sat in for him at the office.

"It was revealing to spend a day with a child," he remarked. "You do so little meaningful terms and yet you're exhausted. It takes enormous energy being responsive to his needs and taking care of the household tasks."

Today Joel is 3. his parents take him to a "marvelous" private nursery in a neighborhood home while Diane works part time. now she wants to go on for a higher degree and eventually will return to a full-time job. By then Joel will be in school. The Badens plan no more children.

It is safe to say that the Badens are still in a minority of families working out such mutual sharing of child-care tasks. Cliff's concept of "fathering" may be the desideratum in a two-wage-earner family, but studies show there has been relatively little change overall. Husbands arem doing more these days -- and that is counted an encouraging sign -- but working wives still bear the overwhelming responsibility of household chores as well as care of the children. Unless their wives walk out on them (as in "Kramer vs. Kramer") and fathers are left with sole responsibility, they are culturally rooted to the view that the main responsibility for a child is the mother's.

They also do not comprehend the enormous burden of work done in a home, or sustain an early commitment to "equality" in the home. As one sociologist commented, "Egalitarianism in marriage shuts off at eight months of pregnancy." Interestingly, the most egalitarian marriages are said to found among the lower middle-class, white-collar workers, who spend more time doing chores than, say, professors or business executives. As one highly educated father of two says candidly:

"Intellectually I go along with equality in the home. In reality I know it will be hard to adapt when my wife returns to work. And, when you get right down to it, I don't really want to."

Given present trends, the debate over the impact on children of working mothers strikes many as frustrating. With the large majority of employed women holding paid jobs out of economic necessity, the focus of society, it is felt, should be on providing the proper child-care facilities and helping parents cope better with heavier workloads. The need is especially acute for the low-income families. Some 11 million children live in poverty and half of those in single-parent homes.

"We've got to stop kidding ourselves," says the Rev. Eileen Lindner of the National Council of Churches. "Mothers have to work yet we have only a capricious, haphazard system of child care. Whether government or private, we must have creative leadership on an issue that is no less important than public education."

There is no question that most American families are becoming increasingly dependent on some form of group care. Alfred Khan and Sheila Kamerman, professors of social policy at Columbia University, estimate that in 1976 more than 6 million children aged 3 to 5 were enrolled in some form of preschool or out-of-home child-care program (nurseries, prekindergartens, kindergartens, licensed family day-care homes, and so on). This represents a high 64 percent of all children in this age bracket.

Interest in group care for infants and toddlers also appears on the rise, though public distrust has kept the numbers of children in such care relatively small. Drs. Khan and Kamerman say about 11 percent of all children under the age of 3 are in some form of out-of-home, nonrelative care (for 29 hours a week, or more). In addition, some women rely on live-in relatives, and some work odd shifts, in order to share child care with their husbands.

In the view of these day-care advocates, the United States is woefully lagging in its concern for adequate child care. In Europe, they note, most nations have a preschool program within the public educational system to provide care for children ages 3 to 5. These programs are voluntary and free, are regarded as beneficial to children, and are used for most children whether the parents work or not. Nor, insist the sociologists, do these programs supplant or de-emphasize the all-important role of the family and the parents.

Precisely what kind of care facilities should be fostered in the United States is still a subject of discussion and controversy, however. There seems to be a growing view among parents and professionals that more preshool programs , private and public, could be developed using the facilities of public schools, many of which now have space and personnel because of declining enrollments.

But some voices caution against increasing publicly funded out-of-family programs. Brigette Berger, head of the sociology department at Wellesley College, argues that crucial class and ethnic factors should be taken into account. It is largely white middle-class parents who account for the rise in day care, she says, while working-class families, especially black and Hispanic ones, use formal programs less, preferring in-home care by extended-family members or voluntary and informal neighborhood arrangements. Public policy therefore, she adds, ought to foster the widest possible choices.

The issue of infant care is an especially sensitive one. The idea of state-run day-care centers, with hordes of infants being looked after by public child reares, is abhorrent to most parents. Besides being prohibitive in cost, such centers, it is felt, would invite abuse and even profiteering. Rather, the public demand seems to be for more licensed private nurseries run in neighborhood homes or in community locations. Companies, too, are beginning to provide or finance nursery facilities for their employees, a trend welcomed by working mothers.

It is in the area of the workplace, in fact, where families today look for major reforms. Here, too, European countries are ahead of the US in their sensitivity to family needs. Most provide some form of cash maternity benefit, so that a working woman can leave her job for at least three months or so at childbirth and have full job protection. Employers, suggest Drs. Khan and Kamerman, ought also to provide "sick days" to mothers and fathers to take care of children and a certain number of days to visit the school or attend PTA meetings.

Another proposal is "paternity" leave for fathers so they can be home for the first weeks after a childbirth. In countries providing such leave, such as Sweden, only a minority of men take advantage of it but, significantly, their numbers are increasing

"Social supports are needed to help make marriage work," remarks Cliff Baden. "There should be respect for the father's role as well as the mother's."

Other much-talked-about solutions for the working family are flexible working schedules, a shorter workweek, job sharing, more and better-paid part-time jobs, and elimination of mandatory overtime. Flexible working hours, especially, which allow both parents to adjust their schedules to those of their children, is gaining broader public support in the US after its widespread acceptance in Europe. According to one report, an estimated 17 percent of American companies and more than 200 government agencies now are trying flexible time, a practice first tried in West Germany. Morale in most of these companies reportedly has improved and labor productivity has gone up.

"Two-earner families, especially at the executive level, have led to much adjustment in the business world," says A. Sidney Johnson III of the Family Impact Seminar in Washington. "Many firms are having to find the spouse a job or to make concessions on how often transfers can be made. Ten years ago this would have been thought of as unbusinesslike."

Today's working families, in short, confront society with new challenges. There is no quarrel over the needs of children for the thoughtful, loving care of their parents. But, in a time when more and more mothers are entering the paid labor force, it is felt that other institutions, including industry, must become more involved. The workplace is no longer as isolated from family life as it once was, and business itself today suffers because so many worker problems have to do with the family.As Sheila Kamerman and Alfred Khan write:

"Unless it is possible for adults to manage their work and family lives without undue strain on themselves and their children, society will suffer a significant loss in productivity, and an even more significant loss in the quantity and quality of future generations."

Next: The state is no substitute

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