Work or stay at home? It's still a quandary for moms

Stay-at-home moms and working mothers have hardly called a truce in the so-called Mommy Wars — the debate over which sort of parenting is better for a child: a mother at home or on the job.

The latest salvo: a book by Leslie Bennetts, The Feminine Mistake, which posits that mothers assume too much of a financial and career risk if they stay at home to raise the kids.

Recent research also reflects the ambivalence with which many mothers regard their own decisions about working or staying home, and many feel harshly judged for their choices. There is a widespread belief that today's parents are not measuring up to the standard that parents set a generation ago, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. More than half of Americans (56%) say that mothers are doing a worse job today than mothers did 20 or 30 years ago, the study found.

"I often hear moms who are thinking of going back to work tell me they need flexibility, but being at home is driving them crazy," says Robin Ryan, a career coach and author of What to Do with The Rest of Your Life, in an e-mail. "Stay-at-home moms complain a lot that 'just being a mom' is like being invisible in this society."

But working moms feel qualms about their choices, too. Christina Zola, 39, of Washington, D.C., longs to stay home with her son, Nicholas, 4, but works full time doing marketing for an architecture firm.

"The guilt is there, wherever I am, and I rarely feel I'm in the right place at the right time." Zola says. "We all, as mothers, live with the consequences of our choices, and we don't take them lightly."

More prefer part-time jobs

In the span of the past decade, full-time work outside the home has lost some of its appeal to mothers, a report from the Pew Research Center found. This trend holds for mothers who have such jobs and those who don't.

Among working mothers with children 17 and under, one in five (21%) say full-time work is the ideal situation for them, down from the 32% who said that in 1997, according to a July Pew Research Center survey. Six in 10 (up from 48% in 1997) of today's working mothers say part-time work would be their ideal, and one in five (19%) say they would prefer not working at all outside the home.

Those who do work say they often must confront attitudes from co-workers who may question their decision to leave children in child care or with a nanny. That's what happened to Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software in Eugene, Ore. Parsons says she was recently participating in a business meeting and during casual conversation, one of the men said, "Thank goodness my kids are not being raised by a nanny."

Presumably, this was a man who had a wife who had chosen to stay at home with his children. Meanwhile, Parsons' children were at home with their nanny. She says she just smiled, said nothing, and felt happy that she was ending a very productive meeting and was on her way home to be with her two boys, Timmy, 3, and Leo, 1. Parsons works full time.

"I thought he'd be embarrassed, but he just didn't get it," Parsons says. "I thought, 'Should I say something?' Not all of us have a choice. There are times there is pressure to feel guilty. I feel like work makes me a better mom. I want to work."

The Feminine Mistake extols the joy of mothers working at jobs they love and in being able to be financially independent if need be, and that is a position that Parsons agrees with.

She says she wants her sons to learn that mothers can also be professionals and bosses and not have to give up career aspirations just because they have children.

No right or wrong answer

Mommy Wars — that often unspoken judgment that persists over the choices that both working at stay-at-home moms make — can be avoided if mothers become more comfortable about the choices they make and why they've made them, says Lynn Jarrett, a coach and author.

"Understand that every woman is 'wired' differently. Different personalities have unique approaches and ideas on parenting," Jarrett says in an e-mail. "There's no 'right' or 'wrong' answer, but what fits best for you and your family needs. Stop 'should-ing' on yourself."

The debate and guilt over a mother's decision to work or not comes even amid major demographic changes. In 1970, women contributed a median of 27% to their families' income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2004, the most recent data available, that percentage jumped to about 35%. And the percentage of wives who earn more than their husbands do has climbed from 17.8% in families where both spouses work to 25% in 2004. About 70% of women with children under 18 are in the labor force.

"I know many moms who work full time, some who work part time, and some who stay at home," says Jeanne Hurlbert, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"Probably the biggest feature we all share is that we're unsure about the decisions we've made, about whether we're doing the 'right' thing for our families, particularly for our children," she says.

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