A Mother's Place Taking the Debate about Working Mothers beyond Guilt and Blame (Part 2)

03 Jan 2016 16:44

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There is no solid evidence that a mother's working full-time harms her baby, we are told, and so she shouldn't feel guilty for doing it. The love a mother feels for her children will compensate for the hours she is away from them. "As I and many other mothers and their children have found, our bonds can survive hours or days apart … somehow children sense when a parent is or is not committed to them."
This would be a reassuring theory if it rested on more than Miss Chira's assertion. But it doesn't. Like any diligent Times reporter, she painstakingly reviews the studies on child care, interviews "typical working mothers," and broods about the vastness of human experience and the difficulty of drawing conclusions.
Yet she acknowledges that much of the child-care research is flawed or still in its early stages, and that no one really knows the potential long-term effects of placing babies in day care before they are old enough to smile. She acknowledges, too, that the little we do know can be disturbing such as the neurological studies which show that the quality of attention a child receives through infancy directly affects its brain development. Indeed, she admits that she does not know the toll her own long hours will take upon her two small children, and she frets, "There are times when I worry about having them shake this book in my face when they are older."


Nonetheless, this does not prevent her from urging working mothers to put aside their guilt, shut their ears to the "drumbeat" of those who would urge them to do otherwise, and trust that what they are doing is right. Despite her own periodic doubts, she insists she is not neglecting her children: she is there for them most of the time, if not physically, at least in spirit. This, she claims, is what is most important: "What I resent most about the discussion of working motherhood is the premise that working means valuing work more than children. I am not placing one above the other; I am choosing both," she writes. "Rather than torment themselves about what they cannot do, working mothers can take solace in the different gifts they may be able to offer their children. For me, my work is part of my delight in the world of ideas. I believe that this is a heritage I can offer my children that is just as precious and enduring, just as much a token of love, as the traditional mother's baked goods or spotless house."
But the creepy truth, we learn as the book unfolds, is that Miss Chira is in fact placing "one above the other." Her own example proves what she set out to disprove: that women can't "balance" work and family when their children are very young. When a career woman has a baby, one side or the other has to give. Miss Chira does not choose "both" she chooses work.
When her first baby was born, Miss Chira writes, she took six months' maternity leave because "experts told me that was a bare minimum." But she hated being at home, was startled by how exhausting taking care of a baby was, and "far from [being] the blissful communion, the respite from the routines of work, that I had anticipated, [my] days had become increasingly desperate exercises to fill up the lonely hours." Her daughter's colic, she writes with despair, interfered with the one domestic task she really enjoyed gourmet cooking. "When I returned to work [full-time], I left behind a gnawing sense of oppression, boredom, and guilt that had cast a pall over my maternity leave."
She would leave home each morning and often not return until her child's bedtime or later. Much to her relief, her daughter "did not fall apart the first time I worked past 8 P.M.," and the little girl was grateful for the "small presents (a T-shirt, a seashell) I brought back" from business trips. When her son arrived, Miss Chira took only three months' leave. This doesn't mean, however, that she believes a woman should never take extended time away from work: for her book, she took an 18-month leave of absence.
Later, when she was offered a promotion that would result in even more demanding hours, she "agonized" but then leapt at the chance: "I asked myself what my children needed and what I needed to feel close to them. The answer was enough time every night before bed to play, to talk over the day, to establish that elusive but essential sense of connection. My months back at work had taught me that I could tolerate some late nights, but I could not bear regularly arriving home after my children were asleep, or even getting home just in time to kiss them goodnight."
In other words, Miss Chira is suggesting that a woman can be just as good a mother in 45 minutes a day or about the same amount of time she might spend toning her thighs on a StairMaster as if she stayed home or worked part-time. Miss Chira cites, approvingly, one of her friends, who rarely gets back from the office before 9 P.M.: "[Her] half-hour at her daughters' bedtime gives her a sense of intimacy and assurance that is evident every time I have seen her with her children."…

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