Dear Mom, Your Child’s Better Off If You Go To Work

by Natasha Gural

Hey stay-at-home moms and dads, maybe I‘ve made the stronger choice for my son’s long-term success by cobbling together contract jobs and awkwardly juggling life and work. But don’t take my grumpy word for it.

New global research in a working paper by Kathleen L. McGinn and Mayra Ruiz Castro of Harvard Business School, and Elizabeth Long Lingo of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, shows that working moms are setting a better example for their sons and daughters and paving a stronger foundation for the future.

For girls, the major impact manifests in the workplace. “Adult daughters of employed mothers are more likely to be employed, more likely to hold supervisory responsibility if employed, work more hours, and earn marginally higher wages than women whose mothers were home full time,” the research shows.

Boys reap the later rewards on the home front. “Sons raised by an employed mother spend more time caring for family members than men whose mothers stayed home full time,” according to data from 24 countries in North and South America, Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

It shouldn’t be a revelation that this new research found “the potential for non-traditional gender role models to gradually erode gender inequality in homes and labor markets.”

For all our focus on Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation, 40 years after Dr. Renee Richards’ sex change and David Bowie’s dragtastic triumph as the archetypical androgynous rock god, the U.S. is painfully back-peddling any progress in terms of gender roles. In 2013, 51% of male and female respondents in the U.S. said they believe that children are at an advantage if their mother is at home and unemployed, while a measly 8% believe children benefit equally if their father is at home and unemployed.

There exists a prominent culture of guilt, even shame, among working moms who worry about missing milestones or blame themselves for any behavioral woes. Sadly it’s most often the moms who, largely because they can afford to, choose to give up any outside work that inflict the cultural equivalent of a 21st century Scarlet Letter.

The benefits of being a working mom have long been documented. A 2010 study published by the American Psychological Association found that children of employed mothers do as well, if not better, at school, both academically and behaviorally.

My mother’s biggest regret was quitting her job as head of a regional high school business department because her obstetrician warned that she may have another miscarriage or still birth if she kept working while experiencing complications during her pregnancy with me. Instead, she went back to graduate school, while her mother cared for me. As an infant and a young girl, I went to work with my babushka, who cleaned house and prepared meals for entertaining clients of her employer: a wife and husband who both worked high-powered jobs.

Middle-class Western Massachusetts in the 1970s and ’80s was a different planet than present-day West Village where my son attends one of the city’s most coveted public elementary schools. My son’s classmates include kids of celebrities and other affluent residents who can handily afford the $45K annual tuition bill for Suri Cruise’s school of choice, Avenues.

Decades before I even considered becoming a mother, I imagined the West Village would be a place that celebrates the success of all genders and promotes the professional evolution of women.

Nobody has alienated me, but I feel disconnected from a tight-knit community of women who pride themselves on not working outside the home, with some expressing no desire to ever return to work.

Working moms and dads are always the first to drop off their kids, often lined up before the classroom doors open. Being on time has been essential to my keeping any of my jobs for more than two decades. Even if my son doesn’t chose a deadline-focused career like working for a breaking news wire service, I want him to be aware that showing up on time is a sign of competence and respect.

Being busy and a little harried has its advantages. When my son’s teacher emailed that our children needed white T-shirts for a project, I bought it right away. It was an excuse to step away from my computer and rest my eyes from the multiple screens of writing and editing assignments.

Some of my peers with a little more mom time and a penchant for “reply all” turned the hunt for Hanes into the Quest for the Golden Fleece, manifesting in a days-long email thread. Two industrious mothers bought in bulk and then created a complicated distribution plan for their surplus shirts. This well-to-do clothing drive quickly became muddled and confused with even the teacher forced into the distribution chain. These moms earn an A+ and beat me hands down for community spirit, but I’d dole out a C- for impractical action. Can’t we all just spare a few minutes to buy a plain shirt and move on?

My son takes pride in telling his teacher, a mom of two, that I go to the office after drop off. I frequently miss salaried management roles that would drastically reduce the number of tax forms I collect in January, but I’m grateful for the flexibility of freelance work that allows me to attend most school-day performances.

I know calling out stay-at-home parents is a social sin in posh neighborhoods. I’m not a Harvard scholar, but I do know that multi-tasking working parents are demonstrating to their sons and daughters that there’s less stress in getting things done efficiently than there is micromanaging minutia over every petty parenting task to replace the satisfaction that comes with meeting or exceeding a workplace demand.

The compensation of parents trading skills for money is about more than paying bills and gaining self-esteem. Working mothers are teaching their sons and daughters something that even the most acclaimed public or private schools can’t provide.

“Whether moms or dads stay at home or are employed, part time or full time, children benefit from exposure to role models offering a wide set of alternatives for leading rich and rewarding lives,” McGinn, Ruiz Castro, and Long Lingo conclude. “Giving children opportunities to see and know people — men and women — making lots of different choices at work and at home will help children see lots of options for success in their own lives at work and at home.”

Natasha Gural is an award-winning journalist, storyteller and writer of many things including a novel-in-progress tentatively titled Lubachka, a factual tale of survivor’s guilt based largely on her Russian mother’s early childhood as a prisoner in concentration and labor camps in Poland and Germany. Follow Natasha on Twitter @natashagural.

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