Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Mommy Wars

God, I hate that, this whole "Mommy Wars," thing.  What an evil fabrication.  What a stupid phenomenon.  How destructive.

Anyway, here's a decent article.


The Truth of the Mommy Wars

My children are now 19 and 23 years old. When they were young, and I was an associate professor of developmental psychology, I used to spend a good deal of the scant time I had alone in my office worrying about child care, fretting about whether my children would grow up to feel unloved and abandoned. I had watched my own mother, with a Ph.D. in chemistry she never used, struggle with depression and isolation in a sea of suburban moms who shopped, and I suspected that I had made the right choice for my children as well as for myself. But plenty of people did question my decision to continue full-time work after my children were born. Ironically, at the same historical moment, my neighbors who were full-time mothers also worried, wondering if they were squandering their potential or spoiling their children.

That epidemic of doubt came to be called the Mommy Wars, and the wars are raging to this day. Should mothers work outside the home, and if so should they have full-time or part-time jobs? Does the child's age, the mother's personality, the supportiveness of her partner, or the nature and quality of available child care make a difference? We hear dire predictions about the future of children without full-time maternal care. We also hear periodically about a so-called opt-out revolution, in which educated women — at least, those who have well-paid husbands — are leaving the work force when they have children.

Because a basic tenet of social-science faith is that data can inform policy, back in the 1980s, as I fretted in my office, I turned to the psychology literature for answers. But I found little to allay or confirm my doubts: a study of a small sample of children in high-quality day care here, research on a group of problem children there. So I was thrilled when the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development decided to sponsor a longitudinal study of children's lives in a variety of care-giving arrangements, research that started when the children were born at the end of the 1980s.

The children are now graduating from high school, and it is a good time to ask what we have found out so far. The answers illuminate what we can and cannot learn from social science, how values affect science, and why individual choices and public policy should not depend wholly on data.

Let's begin with a look at the published data, which take us through the start of elementary school. The most important lesson to emerge from the study so far is that, traditional beliefs to the contrary, a child who has not been cared for almost exclusively by his or her mother can still form a strong emotional attachment to her. Writers such as Penelope Leach have reached a wide audience with the message that mothers should care for their children 24/7. But the data from the NICHD study show that a mother's personality and sensitivity are the most important predictors of her child's attachment — not whether she works or if others care for the child.

Interestingly, however, the findings on attachment have not been widely disseminated, even in many of the publications arising from the study itself. Nor have we heard much about another set of findings from the study, showing that nonmaternal care is associated with a child's increased language and intellectual development — especially if the care is high in quality.
Here we start to get into the issue of how politics and societal preoccupations affect the uses of science. Societal and individual worries about child-care arrangements simply migrated away from attachment, bypassed cognitive and language development, and focused instead on the fact that the study data associate time spent in nonmaternal care with increased behavioral problems — even though those problems are still within the normal range of behavior, rather than indications of juvenile delinquency. Basically, people who think children need to be mainly with their mothers seized on whatever data they could find to bolster their argument, instead of conceding that one of their main fears had simply turned out to be unwarranted.

So when we interpret — and disseminate — data, we are looking through the lens of our values. But can we as individuals use data to make personal decisions about child care, or about what social policies to support? Even that is actually pretty hard. One problem is that each decision typically has both good and bad consequences. If putting children in day care increases their intelligence but makes them less well socialized, we might need to choose which effect matters most — not an easy choice.

Another problem is that data showing an association between two facts do not tell us why we see the outcomes that we do, and hence don't answer many practical questions. For example, although the NICHD study shows that children who spend more time in nonmaternal care are somewhat more likely to act out than children who are at home with their mothers, we don't know why that is the case. It's not because the children are insecurely attached, as Penelope Leach might have argued before the study proved her wrong, but what is the mechanism?

We can speculate that spending more time with other children leads to more rough-and-tumble play, which leads to some acting out, but would we be right? If we were, nonmaternal care could be fine if children were cared for individually or in very small groups. Other observers might wonder if working parents make poor disciplinarians because they are tired from their jobs, or because they feel guilty about being away from their children. If that were true, working parents could be tutored in how to avoid the dangers of laxness.

One lesson, therefore, is that social science is much more useful for policy making when we use it to understand mechanisms rather than just to unearth simple associations.

There is another lesson to learn from the NICHD study, maybe the most important one of all. It concerns the way that social values influence the choices investigators make when they first design a study. In other words, the formulation of our science is itself affected by how we frame policy issues, in a way that is political and value laden rather than scientific. What values influenced the designers of the NICHD study?

First, notice the framing of child care as a women's issue. We speak of the Mommy Wars, not the Parent Wars. Nobody planned to gather data about fathers, marriages, or workplaces. If children were seen as an issue relating to both family and work, we would ask ourselves questions such as: How do children affect women's and men's ability to contribute their talents to society? How does fathers' work affect their ability to parent? How do work arrangements affect marriages when child care is an issue, too? Of course no single study can assess everything, but it is naïve to pretend that the choices we make about what to look at are not deeply political.

Second, consider the framing of child care as being about how children turn out. That is certainly important, but what about the lives of their parents? Are women who do not work happier than women who do? Are the husbands of women who stay at home more successful? And what do women who work contribute to society? Those are only a few of the many questions that we ignore when we focus only on children.

Third, think about the emphasis on individual choice. The implicit model in the Mommy Wars is that each mother, basically alone, makes the difficult decisions of whether and how much to work, and how best to raise her children. That framing means we do not question the lack of parental leave in the United States ; the long hours that Americans work, with little vacation; or the recent fascination with the raising of perfect children. If we don't have paid parental leave, for instance, we cannot study the effects it might have on families. Thus, recommendations based on the NICHD study will inevitably be conservative. The data reflect the ways things have been; they do not tell us if new social policies might enhance the lives of children, as well as spare women from having to make agonizing choices among bad options.

The NICHD study has taught us much about the lives of children in the United States today. It should also teach us that data alone are not enough.

Nora S. Newcombe is a professor of psychology at Temple University .
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 8, Page B20

No comments:

Post a Comment