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  • The "mounting evidence" about working moms is more mixed than the New York Times lets on. Tweet This
  • American women who can choose whether to work need a clear-eyed grasp of the inevitable tradeoffs, not advocacy. Tweet This

Seventy percent of American mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force. Religious Christian mothers work, liberal feminist mothers work, poor mothers, rich mothers, Democratic, Republican, black, brown, and white mothers kiss their little ones goodbye and trudge off to their jobs at the office, factory, restaurant and medical center. The 30 percent of mothers who do stay at home with their kids—the SAHM’s—tend to be young, less educated, and foreign-born Hispanic. If they’re anything like previous generations of immigrants, their daughters will eventually drop their own kids off at day care on their way to work just like most Americans.

But to read the New York Times, you’d think that it’s still 1954 and the SAHM menace is hiding under every crib and bunk bed. This past week gave us two examples of the Gray Lady’s determination to keep the Mommy Wars going until they convert every last SAHM-sympathizer and agnostic.

Perhaps the more egregious of the two pieces in question—if only because the more supposedly objective—is by Claire Cain Miller, titled (and widely tweeted) “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers.”  Miller begins by quoting a 2007 Pew study; “41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good.” (More recent Pew numbers from 2014 showing 60 percent of all Americans believing it is good for kids “if a parent stays home” don’t make the same case for the continuing SAHM threat.) Miller’s “mounting evidence” is a study conducted by the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative. The authors of the study crunched data for 50,000 families in 25 countries and found that daughters of working mothers had higher education, employment, and incomes than daughters of mothers who didn’t work.

These particular findings seem unremarkable. It makes sense that daughters who grow up with working mothers would take working motherhood for granted. That assumption might well make them more education-minded, and, since educated women earn more than less educated or non-working women, lead to higher incomes.

In reality, the ‘mounting evidence’ about working vs. stay-at-home moms is mixed.

But the study at the center of Miller’s piece makes a much more disturbing claim: that stay-at-homes are actually damaging their children. “Kids will be so much better off if women spend some time at work,” she quotes one of the authors as saying. Ostensibly Miller is simply reporting not promoting these conclusions, yet she fails to clarify not only that the study has not been published (much less published in a peer-reviewed journal!) but also that the Gender Initiative is an advocacy group, part of whose mission is to advance women’s involvement in the workplace.

Worse, she understates the degree to which their findings are at odds with decades of research with more ambiguous results. Instead she hypes the advantages of working mothers in the previous research. The most extensive study, a 2010 meta-analysis of studies, gets this description: “Children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavior or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety. The positive effects were particularly strong for children from low-income or single-parent families; some studies showed negative effects in middle-class or two-income families.”

Look at the meta-analysis itself and you’ll come away with a different impression:  “The associations between achievement and behavior problems and maternal employment are predominately nonsignificant, small even when significant, both positive and negative in direction, and moderated by both family and contextual variables.” Those variables include the family’s socio-economic status, whether the mother worked part-time or full-time, and most of all, the age of a child. In fact, one of the stronger findings was the “negative effects of employment for middle-class and 2-parent families and for very early employment (child’s first year).” Anti-SAHM partisans tend to want a straightforward battle between good and bad. But the “mounting evidence” about working vs. SAHM’s is mixed. And mothers’ views on the subject are mixed, too: Many women hope to stay home when their kids are young and then return to work. Furthermore, as the below figures illustrate, part-time work is the ideal for the majority of married mothers and a substantial minority of single mothers, though working full-time is the most common actual situation for both groups.

moms ideal work status

Source: Pew Research Center survey, Nov. 2012. Mothers are women with at least one child under 18.

moms actual work status

Source: American Community Survey, 2013. Mothers are women with at least one child under 18. Working 35+ hours in a usual week is full-time. Mothers not working are those not in the labor force. Other mothers are classified as part-time.

The other SAHM salvo from the Times appeared in the form of a Review section article entitled “Poor Little Rich Women,” by “writer-researcher” Wednesday Martin. Martin writes in the persona of an anthropologist studying a tribe she calls the “glam-SAHM’s,” highly educated, carefully toned, and beautifully groomed wives of Upper East Side plutocrats. Martin says about her effort: “A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another.” But she clearly wants us to despise the tribe she is studying. They live in a “glittering, moneyed backwater”; their volunteer work is “an act of extravagance, a brag”; they are “dependent” and “disempowered”; their “choice” not to work is like a “Dogon woman in Mali’s ‘choosing’ to go into a menstrual hut.” (Scare quotes in the original.)

Certainly the poor immigrant women who make up a disproportionate number of SAHM’s need not fear this sort of ridicule (and apparent exaggerations) about their “rigidly gendered social lives.” Martin has stumbled across a winning formula, combining two targets of contempt irresistible to contemporary Times readers: cultural traditionalists on the one hand and the one percent on the other. In fact, as I write Martin’s article remains the most emailed on the Times website. Claire Cain Miller’s “The Mounting Evidence of Advantages” is only a little ways down.

Those American women who are fortunate enough to have choices in the messy work/life struggle need a clear-eyed grasp of the inevitable tradeoffs, not advocacy. For most of them, the answer to whether and when to work is not yes or no, but “it depends.”