Discover more from How I’m Building This Life
#12 [Insert Mommy War Clickbait Title]
How a Harvard Business School research study missed the mark on working mother guilt.
A few weeks back, I wrote about the Unspoken Inheritance, and how the experience of growing up with a mother who stayed at home or worked outside the home can inform decisions women make as they become mothers themselves. Since then I have had many conversations, on- and off-line about women’s own narratives, and they affirm for me what is in many ways so obvious: it’s a highly personal decision, informed by contextual factors of privilege, sacrifice, and unique circumstances. In addition, deciding whether and how to work “outside the home” is not a one-time decision, but rather, just one variable of building a life as a family that is revisited and adjusted time and time again.
Given just how uniquely personal and individualistic this is, I find it curious every time I come across research on the topic. Reading any write-up about it inevitably causes some sort of uproar as it perpetuates the false narrative of the “mommy wars”. Here’s an example that I have been mulling over the last few days: In 2018, the New York Times wrote about the Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers:
In a new study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes.
Some of these effects were strong in the United States. Here, daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, after controlling for demographic factors, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.
The research mentioned is one by Kathleen McGinn, the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. The preliminary findings noted above came out in 2015, and the full study came out in 2018 to also reveal that “Kids of Working Moms Grow into Happy Adults”. McGinn hopes that these findings “bring a big sigh of relief for guilt-ridden mothers who either have to hold down a job to make ends meet or simply choose to work outside the home while raising their children.”
Whether or not it was by design, this study spawned numerous articles with click-bait-y titles to boot:
Is it Better or Worse to be Raised by a Stay at Home Mom?, 29 Jun 2015, Smart People
Kids of working moms earn more, take better care of the family: study, 19 Jun 2015, New York Daily News
Kids of working moms are better off, 15 Jun 2015, CNN Money
Be A Better Mom. Go to Work, 01 Jun 2015, Huffington Post
Want your daughter to earn more? Be a working mother, 22 May 2015, Guardian
Want a financially successful daughter? Be a working mom, 20 May 2015, Boston Globe
Harvard researchers find working mothers have more successful daughters and conscientious sons, 19 May 2015, Business Insider
I. Have. Questions.
What was the research question? The preliminary findings from 2015 were announced through a Harvard Business School Press Release, which claimed, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, growing up with a working mother is unlikely to harm children socially and economically when they become adults.” It isn’t clear how they define “conventional wisdom”, but if we take this at face value, the study seeks to answer this question: By working outside the home, do mothers cause social or economic harm to their children? Considering that it was a research study by Harvard Business School, I would assume that it was meant to assuage any trepidation their women graduates had about pursuing full-time careers while raising children.
Working mom guilt is real. But is it a real solution to frame a research study in such a way that the results would either a) confirm that their guilt is warranted and that their kids will be worse off, or b) provide some empty affirmation that their kids will not only be ok, they’ll be better than the kids with moms who stayed home?
If we are going to find a solution for working mom guilt, it’s worth examining the root causes. For one, traditional gender norms are still powerful today. We are conditioned to believe that home and family are women’s domains. Any aberration from that causes us to question if we are doing the right thing. Relatedly, when a woman chooses to work full time outside the home, tied to that choice is the usually correlated choice to put their children in the care of others (e.g., daycare, nanny, etc.). When men choose to work full-time outside the home, nobody correlates that decision with hiring out child care.
Also contributing to this guilt is this: being a mother and working outside the home in a society with few institutionalized parental or supports makes it a Herculean venture. Anyone — man, woman, with or without child — who is spread too thin and juggling responsibilities beyond what they can reasonably take on will experience guilt. When we are spread too thin, we are not our optimal selves in any of our ventures. And when we consistently cannot show up as we expect to, the unavoidable result is guilt.
I will not attempt to put forth a coherent argument for how to solve for this mom guilt today. But I do think the social sciences can do a lot better to inform our public discourse on motherhood and work.
For starters, what if we stopped scrutinizing women’s highly personal decisions as if any of us should have a say? (What a fitting question to ponder right now.) The McGinn study, if framed differently, could have potentially revealed the same insight without pinning it on a woman’s choice or lack thereof. The research question could have looked at the educational, economic, and social outcomes of children who experienced various forms of childcare: daycare, nannies, a parent, and some combination thereof. We could have reached similar empirically backed insights without pinning women’s personal choices and circumstances to the outcomes of their children.
Further, what if we stopped asking women to attach so much of their identity to how much and where she worked? Or better yet, what if we stopped asking for an accounting of where a woman allocates her time? Labels of full-time, part-time, working mother, stay-at-home-mother perpetuate the notion that a mother’s time must be fully attributable to caregiving, if not work outside the home.
No single study is meant to provide a comprehensive solution to, or outlook on a problem. And perhaps it’s the dearth of thoughtful studies that makes this one seem to take up so much airtime. As we move forward, I do hope that our public discourse around motherhood and work focuses more on recognizing women’s autonomy and agency. And I hope that higher education institutions recognize and value their women students in ways beyond their linear economic trajectory.