The army of working mothers across the nation alternately cheered and heaved a sigh of relief. The forces of stay-at-home moms just shook their heads. And the TV talk shows mobilized immediately, pitting one side against the other in a reenactment of the old mommy wars.
As America responded this week to a new study examining children of working moms (they're doing just fine, it said), the familiar themes resounded concerning one of the most perplexing social issues of modern times.
But behind the moralizing and fingerpointing, a rising chorus of women is striving to turn the debate in a different direction. Rather than focus on the merits or drawbacks of maternal employment, they see a need to do more to change corporate and government policies toward families.
Quietly and behind the scenes, many people are working to end the long-standing polarization of mothers - which can be exacerbated by research such as the long-term study released this week, says Marcy Whitebook, executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington. Indeed, she says, many who support an expansion of quality child care also support parents who want to stay home with their children.
The study, which assessed more than 6,000 children, found that those whose mothers worked during the first three years were not significantly different in behavior, academic performance, and mental health than those whose mothers did not hold outside jobs. Although children whose mothers worked long hours had slightly lower scores on vocabulary and achievement tests, those effects disappeared over time, says Elizabeth Harvey, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who conducted the research.
Her findings have drawn worldwide attention, generating hundreds of requests for interviews from reporters in the United States, Canada, Britain, and even Brazil.
"I knew it was an important issue for people, but I didn't realize how much attention it would receive," Dr. Harvey says.
Yet her findings, however guilt-assuaging, are also generating criticism.
"It's been heralded as this break-through study, but it's just not representative of the working population," says Danielle Crittenden, author of "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us."
She notes that the families surveyed are "disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, and disproportionately lower income." Another limitation, in her view, is the fact that the research tracks children only to age 12. Adolescence or adulthood, she says, could produce different results.
"What's sort of creepy in these studies is that they say no significant harm has been done," Ms. Crittenden says. "It's like plants that can get along with minimal water and light. But are they thriving?"
She and others also fault the research for failing to consider the types of care children were receiving. Harvey concedes that the lack of child-care data constitutes a "big limitation" of her study.
"We do know that for children whose parents work, what happens to them has something to do with the quality of care they get," Ms. Whitebook agrees.
Whatever its limitations, the study is spurring advocates on both sides to try to remedy the lack of support given parents in general. They point to the need for solutions that could help all families, whatever their decisions about employment.
"There are a lot of things society can do to make it easier both for women to be employed and for women to stay at home," says Harvey. To support working women, she urges employers to allow flexible schedules and part-time work. She also stresses the need for quality child care.
For women who stay home during their children's early years, Harvey wants family-leave policies and corporate arrangements that allow people to leave and return years later. She also cites the need to emphasize that "women who do stay home are doing an incredibly important job." Whitebook notes that President Clinton has proposed a tax credit for some families with a parent at home.
Jeanette Lisefski, founder of the National Association of At-Home Mothers in Fairfield, Iowa, notes that her group "purposely stays away from the 'mommy wars' rhetoric." More important than studies or statistics, she says, is the need for parents "to look deeply in their hearts and know what their priorities are for their family, and what they feel is best for their children.... And then use all their creativity, all their skills to make that work...."
JANE SWIGART, author of "The Myth of the Perfect Mother," says working mothers need to "educate and pressure" employers to provide good day care. She, too, says at-home mothers need "tremendous support." She adds, "It's almost as though there's some kind of idea that children can be helped by therapy or child psychologists, but not by helping and supporting mothers."
For Crittenden, that support needs to be framed in the context of questions such as: "How do we bring more flexibility to corporations and jobs? How do we cut taxes to give more money to families so they don't feel the pressure to need two incomes?" Even "government-run, 24-hour day-care centers headed by clones of Mary Poppins would not solve the problem," she says. The larger question is, "do we value the job of motherhood?"
As the controversy continues, Judsen Culberth, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine, says, "There's this little trace of underlying guilt that working mothers still feel. We should. Rearing children is the most important job in the world."
But, she adds, that "doesn't mean we should feel unnecessary guilt about the choice, because as the study shows, kids are OK if you work. They're OK if you stay home. They're both good choices."