PHILADELPHIA -- Barbara Liggett made the Day Care Decision the same way so many other mothers do: out of necessity, with mixed feelings, after much discussion and with fingers tightly crossed.
"You talk to friends, and they say, 'Oh, my daughter is 3, and she's fine,' so you decide day care is OK," Ms. Liggett said. "All you have is anecdotal information to go on."
For a generation of working women, it has been that way: maternal guilt overlaid with uncertainty.
The tug of war between workplace and nursery raises a host of questions for which no solid answers exist: When should I return to work? What type of day care should I choose? Are children in day care more prone to illness? Do children in day care learn as readily?
By 1995, the jury may be in with some verdicts -- thanks to a comprehensive, federally funded study under way at 10 universities across the country that will provide guidelines for the estimated 5 million working mothers with children under 3.
Ms. Liggett and her 16-month-old daughter, Carly, are participants in the study, a first-of-its-kind evaluation of the effect of day care on children.
"This study will be the source of scientific [answers about day care] for decades to come," predicted developmental psychologist Marsha Weinraub, the principal investigator for Temple University's portion of the study.
The project grew out of a 1987 national gathering of child-care experts, who concluded that "there are really tremendous holes in our knowledge," Dr. Weinraub said. "The studies all conflict with one another."
Dr. Weinraub and her assistants began recruiting for the project in January 1991, with visits to the maternity wards of three Philadelphia-area hospitals. Ms. Liggett recalls being approached just days after giving birth.
Intrigued, she agreed to participate, as did 1,300 other mothers nationwide. The women, both married and single, represent a range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. About 60 percent said they planned to return to work full time within a year; 20 percent planned to work part time; 20 percent chose to stay at home.
"We will not be able to talk about individual children," said Sarah Friedman of the National Institute of Child Health and Child Development, which is overseeing the study. "But we can talk about trends. We can talk about certain kinds of quality care. We will be able to describe conditions under which children do not do well."
Specifically, the study aims to investigate the relationship between children's experience in day care -- whether in centers or home-based -- and their social, emotional, language and cognitive development. Families are visited during the first, sixth, 15th, 24th and 36th month, both at home and at the day-care site.
They also fill out lengthy questionnaires about individual characteristics of family members.
That way, Dr. Weinraub said, "we will be able to answer questions . . . taking into account the fact that, for some children, some types of child care are more optimal."
The researchers are looking to examine the moderating effects of such things as a child's temperament, family stresses, parental values, child-rearing practices and maternal attitudes toward life and work.
One of the most important variables, Dr. Weinraub said, is the mother's satisfaction with her own life.
Timing is one of the key areas being examined.
"Some studies, though not well-documented, indicate that children entering into day care early [younger than 8 months] in their first year are more at risk for social and emotional difficulties later on," Dr. Weinraub said. "We want to find out if that's true and, if so, why."
The findings in that area, she noted, will be important for legislators formulating family-leave policy.