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Stop Judging Parenting Paths — The Research Shows Why You Should

Emily Oster, Ph.D.
June 3, 2019
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June 3, 2019
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Here at mindbodygreen we believe in (mostly) mindful parenting. But we know it's not always easy: It involves being introspective about your needs and those of your family. And for some families, one of the hardest decisions parents make is whether one or both parents should work. In this excerpt from Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, bestselling author and economy professor Emily Oster, Ph.D., explains that the decision is a deeply personal one.
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This is an area with a tremendous amount of associated tension and unhappiness. Women who work (some of them, anyway) tell me they feel guilty about not being with their child every minute. Those who do not work (some of them, anyway) tell me they feel isolated and resentful at times. And even when we are happy with our choices on a personal level, it can feel as though there's a lot of judgment coming from both directions.

And to start, the whole premise of the discussion is gendered in an unhelpful way. The choice of whether to have a parent stay home is one your family will need to make. But why does it have to be Mom? It doesn't. Framing this through the stay-at-home-mom lens makes it harder for people to think "stay-at-home dad" is a valid choice. But it should be. Never mind that sometimes a family has two moms. Or two dads. Or only one parent.

Second, this discussion ignores the fact that this really isn't a choice for some families. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who cannot get by—and by "get by," I mean have a place to live and put food on the table—without all the adults in the household working.

If your family is lucky enough to have a choice, the goal of this is to give you a framework for how to think about it.

Structuring the decision.

How should you think about the choice of working? I'd argue it has three components:

  1. What is best for your child? (Let's take best to mean "likely to help promote their long-term life success, happiness, etc.")
  2. What do you want to do?
  3. What are the implications of your choice on the family budget?
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People often talk about 1 and 3, and I'll spend some time on those here. But I'd like to encourage you to also think about 2. That is, you should think about whether you want to work. It is common for people to say they work "because I have to" or stay home "because I have to." And in either case, that can sometimes be true. But I think it is not true as much as people say it.

And this is a problem. It should be OK to say you made this choice because you wanted to work or wanted to stay home.

I'll say it: I am lucky enough to not have to work, in the sense that Jesse [my husband] and I could change how we organize our life to live on one income. I work because I like to. I love my kids! They are amazing. But I wouldn't be happy staying home with them. I've figured out that my happiness-maximizing allocation is something like eight hours of work and three hours of kids a day.

It isn't that I like my job more than my kids overall—if I had to pick, the kids would win every time. But the "marginal value" of time with my kids declines fast. In part, this is because kids are exhausting. The first hour with them is amazing, the second less good, and by hour four I'm ready for a glass of wine or, even better, some time with my research.

My job doesn't have this feature. Yes, the eighth hour is less fun than the seventh, but the highs are not as high and the lows are not as low. The physical and emotional challenges of work pale in comparison to the physical and emotional challenges of being an on-scene parent. The eighth hour at my job is better than the fifth hour with the kids on a typical day. And that is why I have a job. Because I like it.

It should be OK to say this. Just like it should be OK to say that you stay home with your kids because that is what you want to do. I'm well aware that many people don't want to be an economist for eight hours a day. We shouldn't have to say we're staying home for children's optimal development, or at least, that shouldn't be the only factor in the decision. "This is the lifestyle I prefer" or "This is what works for my family" are both OK reasons to make choices!

Making a choice.

Whether to have all adults in the household work outside the home is not an easy choice for most people, and it is nearly impossible to give blanket advice. The data suggests that—putting aside early maternity leave, which has some significant benefits—there is not much evidence that having a stay-at-home parent positively or negatively affects child development.

This means it really comes down to what works for your family. This includes thinking about your budget but also thinking about what you want. Does one parent want to be home with the kid or not? In a sense, this is probably the main consideration, but it is also the most complex and hard to predict. Before you have a child, it's pretty difficult to tell if you'll want to be with them all the time.

Some people love being with their baby every minute and cannot imagine being away. Some people eagerly look forward to returning to work on Monday morning, even if they love their kids just as much.

And this may change as the children age. Some people really love babies. I have found that as my kids get older, I enjoy being with them more. I still do not want to be a stay-at-home parent, but I think I'd like it more now than I would have when they were younger. Try to be honest with yourself about what you want.

The breakdown:
  • Babies benefit from their mothers taking some maternity leave. However, there is little evidence suggesting that having a stay-at-home parent after the parental leave period has either good or bad consequences for children.
  • Decisions about whether to have a parent stay home should consider your preferences, along with consequences for your family budget in both the short and long term.
  • Stop judging people!
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By acknowledging that the choice to stay home or not is just that—a choice, with factors pushing you in various directions—we can perhaps start to move away from the judgmental attitude that seems to crop up on both sides of the aisle. I'd like to be able to say that I choose to have a job because that is what I want, and I'd like friends to be able to say they choose to stay home because that is what they want. And I'd like us to be able to say both these things without my being tempted to look down my nose at those friends and their being tempted to imply that my children will not have the best start in life.

Is that so much to ask? I think it is not.

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Emily Oster, Ph.D. author page.
Emily Oster, Ph.D.

Emily Oster is a professor economics at Brown University and the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide To Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth To Preschool and Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know. She was a speaker at the 2007 TED conference and her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Esquire. Oster is Married to economist Jessie Shapiro and is the daughter of two economists. She has two children.