In age when few would question a woman's right to hold any job she can do, a mother's right to work outside the home while raising children remains controversial.
Conservatives say we need to restore full-time motherhood as a social norm; feminists say we need to ensure better child care. Maybe both sides are offering simplistic solutions that ignore the complexities of real life.
The contentious debate was reignited last week by the latest report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's study of early child care. The widely publicized study found that children who spend a lot of time in day care in their first four years, regardless of the quality of care, are more likely to be aggressive toward other children in kindergarten.
Some feminist critics have been quick to see the study and the publicity as an attack on working mothers. In a commentary in Women's Enews, Caryl Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor, suggested that one of the principal investigators, psychologist Jay Belsky (currently a professor at the University of London in England), had an anti-day care agenda; she also accused the media of fostering "mass hysteria about day care" while burying the good news.
In fact, Belsky is a former champion of day care who came to believe that group care for infants could cause problems. The new study has validated many of his concerns.
As for alleged media bias in favor of studies that cast day care in a negative light, one could convincingly argue the opposite. Several studies that seemed to give day care a clean bill of health have been hyped by the media, with front-page headlines such as "Mother's employment works for children." The glowing reports often overlooked methodological flaws and inconvenient facts—such as findings that under some circumstances, extensive early day care could have negative effects.
Meanwhile, many news stories on the just-released study were careful to note that the data could be explained in a variety of ways: For instance, maybe children who are innately aggressive are more likely to be put in day care because they are tougher to raise. That's not very plausible, since the average age at which these children started day care was six months.
Conservative champions of full-time motherhood have their own politically correct spin. Pundits on the right have rushed to attack any ostensibly pro-day-care study as an insult to stay-at-home moms. Last Saturday on CNN, Robert Novak gloated that the new study was "a blow for the feminists, who defend dumping their children in a day care center."
He also misstated the findings, saying that children in day care were three times more likely to behave badly in kindergarten; that was true only for those who had averaged more than 30 hours a week in nonmaternal care.
Is the institute's study a cause for alarm? Defenders of working mothers point out that the vast majority of children in full-time day care did not show elevated aggressiveness. Still, 17 percent did, compared with 6 percent of children who had been in day care 10 hours a week or less. Such an increase is not catastrophic, but it's surely significant.
The next step, perhaps, should be to compare children in day care who turn out to be bullies and those who don't. What parenting practices can make a difference? Do some working moms try to alleviate guilt by overindulging their kids? Does the age at which the children start day care matter? (In some studies, only full-time maternal employment in the first year is linked to more problem behaviors.)
It is also imperative to take a closer look at dads, whom the institute's researchers treated simply as day-care providers. While the study found that children in the care of fathers fared only slightly better than those in day care centers, there were too few children in father care to make a meaningful comparison. Belsky believes that the data could be used to support policies enabling either parent to spend more time at home.
Most mothers, contrary to some conservatives' claims, don't want to leave the workplace (in a 1995 survey, only about one in four wanted to be at home full time). One solution, preferred by growing numbers of fathers as well as mothers, is more part-time or home-based work while the children are very young.
When one side uses day-care research to beat up on working mothers and the other tries to explain away politically incorrect research findings, it makes for entertaining ideological warfare. But it certainly doesn't help children or parents.