Skip this guilt trip

August 12, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — BOSTON- I came by my skepticism early and honorably. As a college freshman, I helped my roommate devise a mischievous experiment for her statistics class. We turned the dorm lavatory into a laboratory. Standing before a trio of bathroom stalls, she charted our dormmates' choices - left, right, or center - with their political ideologies. The two, I blush to tell you, correlated perfectly.

That may be why I became a journalist - or at least a dubious student of studies. In any case, I was ahead of the crowd. These days we've all become skeptics.

It's hard enough to have faith in medical science when we hear that hormones don't prevent heart disease after all, that fat may not make you fat, and that the sun may actually prevent cancer. Social science is even murkier. You can't do a double-blind crossover study on children. You can't raise them one way, start all over again, raise them another way, and compare. You can't give one group of kids a placebo and the other group a parent.

As for "working mothers," the veritable lab rat of the social scientists? When every new report sounds like a double-bind study, we throw our hands in the air, or over our eyes.

The latest midsummer scare was a study reporting that the children of mothers who work full-time during the first nine months are likely to test lower on school readiness. The headline - "Study Links Working Mothers to Slower Learning" - registered a full "eek" on the guilt meter.

But this time the alarm had a shorter shelf life than Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book warning women not to put their eggs in the career basket. We went about our workaday lives anyway.

Why the collective shrug? For one thing, an earlier group of social scientists also working with data from the federal government's Study of Early Child Care reported that there was no difference in the overall cognitive ability of kids in mom-care or other care.

Of course, the authors of the new study were charting the more specific effect of maternal employment when all other things - such as the income of the parents, the quality of care and the sensitivity of the mothers - are equal. But all things are never equal.

In real life, for example, women who go back to work earlier tend to have more education and higher paychecks - two reasons their children do well in school. In research life, they "corrected" for this advantage - wiping out the reason most women work with a statistical stroke.

Then too, even the authors, respected researchers from Columbia University, urged us not to take their work too, well, personally. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn said, "We're not saying that if you work you're ruining your child's life."

So the shrug suggests what we've learned. No researcher knows what's best for one child. Real life is more complicated than lab life.

Nevertheless, there may be some disadvantage in our "studied" disdain. We shouldn't take the child-care study personally, but we should take it publicly.

The researchers themselves seem most interested in the policy implications of their findings.

What if American babies don't do as well in full-time child care those first nine months as with their mothers? Researcher Jane Waldfogel says, "It has to mean that the whole range of child care is a couple of degrees lower than the whole range of parental care."

What if babies are uniquely sensitive to separation at six or nine months? Then we need better family leave policies.

And what if stressed-out mothers are better off working less than 30 hours a week that first year - a schedule that produced no downside? At the very least, we need more part-time and flex-time work.

Putting on my skeptic's hat, the collective weight of all the research on work, family, kids can't tell one mother what makes sense for her life. But it adds another layer to the common sense of our collective lives.

As we turn down the private guilt, we still have to turn up the public will. As far as kids are concerned, everything else is just a placebo.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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