Dear Dr. Debbie,
We are expecting our first baby and have already started getting advice from friends and family about what I’m supposed to do with my career.
My husband and I have put a lot of thought into this already. He has a more flexible and open schedule, as well as uncertainty about whether he’ll stay in his current field, and I work a more typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job with several years invested in what will probably be a steady increase in pay and responsibilities. So after a decent maternity absence, I’ll be back to work leaving Daddy and baby at home.
While some people are telling me how hard it is to find child care for an infant, I think we have that covered. Others are telling me I’ll miss my baby too much to go back to work. Or hint that the baby will suffer if I’m not at home. How often do fathers get told this?
Am I missing something here?
Just Doing My Job
Don’t miss last week’s column Time to register for kindergarten — Good Parenting
The increasing presence of mothers in the workplace over the past 60 years has had sociologists and psychologists interested in the effect of maternal employment on the family for a couple of generations now. The term “quality time” came into the discussion to contrast a mother who found spending her days with her children rewarding versus those who were better with their children when they had a rewarding career going on. Both kinds of mothers were investing themselves, with pleasure, in the role of mothering. Turns out, this is very important. Studies of depressed mothers, or stressed out mothers, or mothers who are “there” but not there for the children (sticking them in front of the television), showed that their children did not do as well socially or academically.
This is where quality childcare — which could be care by another relative — fits in. Nurturing relationships with consistent caregivers, who sensitively engage a young child in intellectually stimulating experiences, is what matters most. Not whether the adult is paid to be there. It is presumptuous to expect that mothers are always best. Fathers can be pretty darned wonderful. And professional child care providers can also be outstanding. The child care industry, particularly in Maryland, monitors quality by mandating the credentials and ongoing training of child care providers, and outlining requirements for age-appropriate learning activities in safe and stimulating environments.
As far as quantity goes, babies are a 24-7 affair. But by school-age, time spent as a family becomes something to plan for. And research suggests this is good for everyone. Studies of how much time mothers (and fathers) actually spend engaged with their school-age children show a steady increase since the mid-1960’s. The Journal of Marriage and Family reports that mothers in 1965 spent an average 10.5 hours per week with their children (fathers spent 2.6 hours) but that had climbed to an average 13.7 hours per week (fathers increased to 7.2 hours) by 2010. One explanation is how time at home has changed – fewer kids go running around outside on their own anymore. They’re at home playing with their toys or being shuttled by parents to one activity after another. In the past, children didn’t used to rely so much on parents for their entertainment, but found it with other children on the block. Another explanation may be that women who are truly rewarded by their work bring their happiness home to share it with their families.
A related sociological phenomenon is the ever-closing difference between what mothers and fathers do. As mothers went to work, the increasing expectation for fathers has been to do more of the parenting. Your husband will find company among the 2 million stay-at-home fathers, as reported by National Public Radio, which cited statistics from Pew Research. This is up from 1.1 million in 1989. Some men at home may describe their situation as being out-of-work or disabled, but as compared to 5 percent in 1989 who elected to stay home with the children, 21 percent of today’s stay-at-home dads say they are home with their children by choice. Choice makes family time better for everyone.
A worthy voice on the subject of fathers as primary caregivers is Jeremy Adam Smith, author of “The Daddy Shift” and a former blogger about his satisfying decision to stay home.
Following your own choice as parents will help to shape the quality of your parenting.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com