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When Daycare Is Detrimental

Every new mom faces a forked path before her as career and family become entwined. This is often framed as a choice moms make, even though it might not feel like one. The subject is fraught with emotion, because motherhood is as well. It can lead to moms defending the course of their lives in the so called "mommy wars."

That's why the New York Times article, "Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers" was well received by those of us who work for pay in some capacity.

But the article presents an incomplete picture.

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The research that backs up the article is actually more nuanced, says Dr. Denise Cummins in "The Truth About Children of Working Mothers" in Psychology Today. Her commentary shows that there's much more to the subject of working moms and the well-being of our children than the assertions in the Times suggest.

For instance, she says that the 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies from over 50 years demonstrate that daycare is only associated with better outcomes for children growing up in single parent, low-income families. By comparison, employment was associated with negative child outcomes in families that weren't at risk financially, i.e. middle or upper-middle class.

In other words, if you can afford to stay home and still enjoy a middle class lifestyle, your baby would be better off for it. Only when working was financially necessary was daycare associated better outcomes for those children.

Cummins says timing matters, too, as the research shows daycare during a baby's first year of life is detrimental to their achievement, whereas being employed in later years is associated positively with achievement.

What are the implications? They may well be as nuanced as the research itself.

First, it's necessary to understand what research measures. The analysis grounding the discussion evaluated children's achievement and behavior. So, a middle-class working mom might have her child outperformed in school by the child of a middle-class mom who gave up her income to stay home.

It's hard to say much more about the effects of a mom's decision to work in the early years, because a child's well-being is a complex thing and part of a family's overall well-being, which is not captured by the analysis. So, we might take these findings with a grain of salt.

Still, the research is compelling when it comes to children's academic achievement and behavior.

Something that neither of the articles discusses is how a mom's attitude toward working or staying home figures into the assessment of children's achievement. It seems it would be important that the moms who stay home must wish, on some level, to be home. An unhappy mom at home could conceivably lead to a different kind of detriment in children's lives. Sometimes, the best option might be to have a happily working mama.

And what about low-income moms who want to stay home with their babies but can't afford to do so? How much would they (and their children) gain from universal paid maternity leave? That's something that could provide a more meaningful choice for moms of broader income levels and a discussion that's missing from the Times article—and most discussions about working vs. stay at home mothers.

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What's the takeaway from the research?

The first year of a baby's life is plays a significant role in children's well-being. They need care, whether it be from a loving parent or a quality caretaker in the cases where a parent is unable to be there. Stay-at-home moms who wish to go back to work have a basis for going back to work after a year if they so wish. Finally, because our nation has an interest in the well-being of its children, this research could be used to support a one-year universal maternity leave policy on par with other advanced nations.

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