It’s one of the most common — and often heated — debates of parenthood: Should you be a working or a stay-at-home parent?
Like a relationship status on Facebook, it’s complicated: There are those who choose to work and those who choose to stay home to care for their children. But others have no choice: They have to work because they need the income, or they have to stay at home because childcare is too expensive.
But if you could choose, which situation is best for kids?
Both stay-at-home moms and dads are on the rise. The number of mothers who don’t work outside the home increased to 29 percent in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1999, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The percentage of stay-at-home dads is far lower, but the actual number almost doubled from 1989 to 2012 — from 1.1 million to 2 million, according to another Pew Research Center study.
Of course, not everyone is home by choice: The research found that 23 percent of stay-at-home dads, for example, are there because they’re out of work, but a close second (21 percent) say they want to care for their family. That’s a big jump from just 5 percent of stay-at-home dads identifying as the primary caretaker back in 1989. Still, the largest share of stay-at-home fathers (35 percent) is at home due to illness or disability.
Some stay-at-home parents find greater fulfillment in caring for their kids full-time and never having to miss a milestone. Although tending to children is ranked as more exhausting than logging hours at the office, according to the Pew Research Center, parents say it’s also significantly more meaningful.
In addition, research shows that older children may benefit academically from having a supportive parent at home. A Norwegian study found that kids, particularly around ages 6 and 7, whose moms did not work had slightly higher grade point averages.
Is a dad who works good for the family? (Photo: Alamy)
For working parents, many feel guilty about not spending as much time with their kids as stay-at-home parents. But recent research should help ease that anxiety, at least for moms: A 2015 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that the amount of time mothers spend with their children, ages 3 to 11 and ages 12 to 18, had little to no effect on their children’s behavior, well-being, or academics. In addition, the study found that children with working mothers (part-time or full-time) benefited: Daughters of working moms earned more money than daughters of stay-at-home moms, and were more likely to hold leadership positions at work. Sons of mothers who worked were more egalitarian, spending more time on household duties and childcare when they grew up and had their own families.
So if the amount of time you spend with your kids doesn’t matter, what does? Quality. In other words, with whatever time parents have available, making it count by being engaged and present with their children can make all of the difference.
What the Experts Say
For working parents, life is often a juggling act. “You’re on your Blackberry when you want to be playing with your kids, or you have to leave work to pick up a sick kid,” Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology graduate student and lead author of a working mothers study, told Time. “But there is also a positive spillover: your role as a parent makes you a more patient boss, or having time away from your kids makes you a happier parent when you’re with them.”
The key is for working parents to cut themselves some slack. Luepp’s research shows that working women who strive to be Supermom and think they won’t have to make tradeoffs between work and childcare have a higher risk of depression than those who are more realistic about work-life balance. “If you think you can have it all, don’t,” says Leupp. “Maybe knowing that you can almost have it all is the better way.”
For stay-at-home parents, the demands of childcare can be stressful, which can affect kids if left unchecked. "Much of stay-at-home mothering is harder than any other job,” Shannon Hyland-Tassava, PhD, author of The Essential Stay-at-Home Mom Manual, told Care.com. “Can you think of any other profession that has 24/7 shifts, no coffee or lunch breaks, and no vacation or sick days?” Adds Hyland-Tassava: “You need to change the way you speak to yourself and start appreciating your own worth and hard work as a mom.”
“Can you think of any other profession that has 24/7 shifts, no coffee or lunch breaks, and no vacation or sick days?” (Photo: Alamy)
If part-time work is a possibility for you or your spouse, that may be the best option. “Part-time employment is not such a time drain that moms don’t have time to do other things that are important to parenting, and it’s enriching their own lives in ways that enrich their mental health,” Cheryl Buehler, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told Time.
What the Parents Say
“I struggle with the ‘Should I work or stay home?’ question. I love working, but since my field isn’t well-paid and childcare is expensive, I’ve never been able to justify working full time because the amount I’d profit after taxes and childcare wouldn’t be worth the added stress on me or my family. I worked full time for a while and things like my son having to get a major dental procedure with a babysitter by his side — and me at work texting the sitter to see how it was going — were stressful, even though my kids were completely fine. It also felt empowering to accept that the superwoman-working-mom thing just isn’t me.” —Celeste P.
“My mom was a stay-at-home parent and I don’t think she had enough of a life. I don’t want my daughter to feel that way about me. I want her to know that I also have a life outside of her, that it’s not all about her. I also like to work because it gives me intellectual stimulation and it’s social. I get to think critically and think about things that are not baby-related!” —Lauren F.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re working outside (or in) your house or are staying home to care for your kids, if you feel good with your choice overall, that attitude benefits your children as well. “If mom is a happier person, then she is going to have a more fulfilling and therefore healthier relationship with her kids,” Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, told WebMD. Same goes for dad. And if you do work, whether by choice or necessity, know that the quality of the time that you spend with your children matters much more than the quantity.