WOULD A STUDY PURPORTING to show that small children suffered "significant harm" when their mothers worked full-time be heralded by major media as vindication for mothers who stay home? Would networks lead their nightly news with the proclamation that mothers who put their children before their career needn't feel "guilty" about not contributing to their household expenses or the gross national product?

Oh, probably not. But look at what happened when the American Psychological Association released a study on March 1 that purported to show the opposite: Working mothers awoke, bleary-eyed, to the news that there were no ill effects of their employment upon their children's well-being or development. It didn't matter, the networks and major newspapers trumpeted, whether a mother worked full-time from the moment her child was born or stayed home full-time through her child's graduation from high school. The effects of her absence, according to the study, were nothing, nada, zip. In fact, it might even be better for kids if their mother worked. According to the study's researcher, psychologist Elizabeth Harvey of the University of Massachusetts, there was evidence that the working mothers of infants "positively affect [their] children's development by increasing family income."

Never mind that these dramatic conclusions were quickly undermined by experts. The impressive-sounding sample of 6,000 children was hardly representative of the population as a whole.

The mothers were disproportionately from lower-income backgrounds. Mothers who worked only a few hours per week were lumped with those who worked as many as forty. More critically, the study did not inquire which kind of care the children were receiving while their mothers were working: Were they with their dads? Their grandparents? In institutions? In Montessori schools? Obviously it makes a difference. Nor did the study follow children past the age of 12. As we know from research on the effects of divorce, the child who "seems fine" can manifest problems later. As David Murray, director of research for the Statistical Assessment Service, puts it, we may not know for twenty years whether there is a "Y2K" problem lurking in the hearts of the present day-care generation.

But none of these caveats slowed the media in their rush to reassure exhausted, guilt-ridden moms that their babies don't need them as much as they feared they might. And this gets to the heart of the day-care debate, and the reason it is so fraught with tension and accusation. Advocates of day care disingenuously claim that the issue is simply one of "choice," and since so many women today are apparently "choosing" to work, the federal government needs to invest billions more in providing "affordable, quality child care." If we had that care, they contend, there would be no reason for working mothers to feel "guilty" about their absence from their children.

But this line of argument is an affront to the thousands of couples who are making financial sacrifices in order for one parent to stay home during their children's pre-school years, who don't wish to pay higher taxes to support others' "choice" to work. And it is an affront to the majority of working mothers who feel they have no choice about work at all. When asked their opinion on the subject, they say what they want is not better and more affordable child care, but time out of the workforce to care for their children themselves. The 1997 Roper Starch poll found that the majority of married women would prefer to stay home if they could; only one-third of the 7.2 million married women with children younger than 3 work full-time. Most children who are in some sort of care are minded by their fathers or other relatives; very few parents, given a choice, want to place their babies in institutional care. And few children would say that they are "happier" with their mothers away from them most of the time.

The guilt that so many working mothers feel arises not from the fear that their children are in substandard care during the day, but from the knowledge that what their children want is them, as fiercely and as keenly as most mothers themselves want to be with their babies. When the media join hands to celebrate a study that purports to show these feelings are unfounded, it only exacerbates the feelings of guilt. A woman looking for ways to duck out of or minimize her time in the workforce, trying to convince her colleagues, her boss, and (often most difficult of all) her husband that she is needed by her child and that her role as a mother is a valuable and worthy one -- the last thing she needs is to hear a cheerful chorus from all sides pronouncing that "experts disagree."

The question we ought to be asking is why, in the space of a generation, and in the richest era of our history, we have come to consider the care of one's own children a rare privilege, enjoyed only by an elite few. While some mothers have always been wage earners, and no doubt some will always need to be, this dilemma that so many modern, middle-class women torture themselves with -- my job or my baby? -- is a new one. In our economy, and with the potential flexibility of the workforce today, we should be coming up with better solutions to the main dilemma of working mothers -- the difficulty of moving in and out of the workforce. The last thing we need is more excuses for institutionalizing children from infancy onwards, and more rationalizations about how good this is for them.

Danielle Crittenden is the author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (Simon & Schuster).

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