YOU ARE DOING just fine, you haven't made a big mistake, don't blame yourself for everything, the kids will be OK.
Those words of encouragement are as necessary as air for the working mother who is gasping for breath as she rushes between her job and home. But she hears them so seldomly that her dark certainty that she is doing neither task well feeds on itself and grows.
Working mothers are blamed for everything from the rise of adolescent killers to the decline of the family dinner hour, and they wear that blame like a hair shirt, their penance for daring to live beyond the boundaries that confined their mothers or grandmothers.
Even if she is a single parent, even if her wages are half of what is necessary to keep food on the table and a roof overhead, a working mother is willing to believe that it would be better for the kids and the peace of the house if she did not work. Better, even, for her.
Of the many changes in the American family over the last 40 years, maternal employment certainly has had the most profound effect on everyday life. But we seem determined to view that change in its worst possible light.
Nicholas Zill is director of Child and Family Studies at Westat, a research and analysis firm in Rockville. He calls these bleak worries the "myths" of working motherhood: that the problems of society's children are due to the fact that we work; that we are unhappy, unhealthy people and that our children lead lives that are too busy and too structured.
"A list of factors found to be negatively associated with child well-being includes poverty, separation of the child from the mother early in life, parental conflict, frequent family moves, maternal depression, maternal drug or alcohol abuse and gross neglect or abuse," says Zill.
But not maternal employment, he says.
"We hold onto these myths, I think, in part because there are conventional views of the family and the traditional roles of women and men and there is an idea that if you violate those traditional roles, it will lead to bad results," says Zill.
Zill's study of the data on working parenthood also explodes the myth that working mothers are exhausted, depressed and sick with guilt.
"Yes, working mothers do report somewhat more stress than homemaker mothers," says Zill. "But they report significantly less depression, boredom, loneliness and other negative feelings." And this is true no matter what the woman's race, education, marital status or income. In addition, working mothers are in better general health than other mothers and are more likely to have sought professional help for emotional problems, Zill reports.
And all the stuff we sign up our kids for to keep them busy while we work? The day care centers and the play groups and the latch-key programs and the lessons and the teams? Relax, Zill says, our children are not over-scheduled.
"The notion is that all this structured activity deprives children of their childhood and leaves them no time for self-directed exploration or quiet reflection," says Zill. "In fact, the evidence is in the opposite direction."
Zill says studies show that busy children tend to do better in school and have fewer behavioral or emotional problems.
You can overdo it, of course. But moderate amounts of extracurricular activity are also associated with fewer risky behaviors, too, such as smoking, drinking, delinquent activities and teen child-bearing, Zill reports.
Working parents are not bad parents, Zill says, but they are vulnerable to shortcuts that can get them into trouble: compensating for the time they spend at the office with too many material goods; too many "yeses" when the answer should be a firm "no"; failing to keep track of their children's friends; or failing to keep close to their children, even if that means love notes on the voice mail.
Balancing work and family is not without its problems, Zill says. We don't need any data to prove that to us. But it would be unfortunate if working mothers resolved this conflict by devoting more time to work, and less to family. "I see little evidence that this is in fact happening," Zill says.
And that's good to hear, too.
Pub Date: 6/23/98