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Working Moms: Get Rid of the Guilt

QUESTION: I am very happily employed in the legal field. I enjoy my work, but am worried about the impact working has on my two children. They like their after-school programs, but will working full-time, and being a single mom, cause long-term damage? Is there anything I can do to help them stay well-adjusted?

ANSWER: As a single working mother you are saddled with two potentially destructive myths which must be debunked for your sake and for your children! The first myth is that a "good" mother is a stay-at-home mother.

Research shows that when a mother's employment is satisfactory, her children benefit. Heightened self-confidence in working mothers boosts their children's self-esteem as well: After all, children inherit and learn self-esteem by identifying with those they love. Is it really any wonder that when mothers take care of themselves, they also have more positive energy for their children?

It is the quality of the parent-child relationship that matters. Mothers who are fulfilled themselves are not only good role models for their children, but are happier people, too! Research bears out what common sense tells us -- that happier women make happier mothers, whether they work outside the home or not.

The second myth is that single parent families are, by definition, deficient. In fact, research shows single parent families to be as diverse as two parent households. In other words, their behavior and academic performance runs the same spectrum as their peers who live in families with two parents. Basically, some families are resilient and operate smoothly, while others do not. Functionality is not a result of two parents; it's the result of effective parenting!

Two parents under one roof is no assurance that harmony and love will prevail in the home, anymore than having a mother at home during the day insures well-adjusted, happy children. In fact, children who remain in intact families -- but suffer under the stress of prolonged, unresolved marital conflict -- are the most vulnerable to maladjustment.

Stress affects everyone. It is how we handle stress that makes the difference for our children. It is the quality of our family relationships and our family processes that best insure that our children will grow into healthy well-adjusted adults, despite the adversities life may throw their way.

In the past decade, several studies researched the effects of a mother's employment on her children. Conclusions clearly identified quality of daycare and quality of the parent-child relationship as the two most significant influences, rather than whether or not the mother was employed.

Let's take a deeper look into these two factors which make a difference in our children's welfare:

What should you look for when choosing quality daycare? In order to feel secure, children need to feel an attachment to the adults who care for them. Avoid situations in which your child will be asked to change daycare personnel more than once per year. Ideally, younger children benefit from even longer relationships. Emotional attachment to another adult caretaker is a key process for your child's emotional health. The relationship between your child and his or her daycare provider is an important one, but rest assured that quality daycare is no substitute for the value of your primary parent-child bond.

Qualities to look for in a caregiver include:

  1. A good "match" between the child's temperament and needs and the caregiver's ability to meet them.

  2. Smaller ratio of caregiver to children. For preschool age children, no greater than four children to one caretaker is ideal.

  3. The potential for, and development of, a continuous, strong and positive relationship between caregiver and child.

  4. Staff training in health, safety and child development.

Some additional tips? Take time to observe your child's interactions with a caregiver. Periodically, drop in unannounced to see how your child is experiencing the daycare situation. Develop open and regular communication with your child's caregiver. And evaluate your child's ability to feel safe, be appropriately challenged, play and learn on an ongoing basis.

Insuring quality in the parent-child relationship Every child needs to know there is at least one person who is looking out for their best interests. The quality of the parent-child relationship depends on your children's belief and trust in your capacity to care for, protect and have their best interests at heart. Staying connected to your child's daily life in a predictable manner is the key to developing your child's sense of value.

Ways to stay connected

  1. Check in with your caregiver about your child's daily activities. This kind of ongoing knowledge keeps you abreast of your child's development and allows you to anticipate your child's needs. Preparing cupcakes for the birthday of your daughter's best friend or purchasing a good-bye gift for one of your son's daycare buddy, who is moving out-of-town, are opportunities to be a part of your child's life experience, even when you are not physically present.

  2. If your child is school-aged, stay in touch with classroom activities and your child's teacher. Arrange for homework schedules in your absence, and adult supervision for homework assignments. If possible make yourself available by phone for your child or the teacher during the day. Children feel very secure and special when they can call a parent at work -- not just in an emergency, but to report on their day, or even to get the occasional homework help by phone. In the evening, check with your child about assignments and help him or her organize for the next school day.

  3. Create routines, know your child's schedule and tell your child where you will be and what you are doing, too! Children feel connected to their parents when they know what your work is about: Schedule a visit to the office and share interesting and appropriate work stories with your child.

  4. On the weekends, plan one-on-one activities and family outings. Movies, sports events, simple gardening and other activities can strengthen family bonds.

  5. Establish daily routines that promote sharing, such as checking in with your child at dinnertime and tucking them in at bedtime. Save 15 to 25 minutes per day to relate one-on-one with your child. Even teenagers enjoy a back rub and will talk to you as they relax at the end of a long day. And you may be surprised how relaxed you feel when you end your day connecting with your child.

  6. Occasionally, make a point of taking off from work in order to attend an important function or activity which involves your child. Your son or daughter will feel the importance of coming first in these instances, and will remember special events.

Research studies show that low self-esteem in children is correlated with low parental contact at home. Your children will do well if you show interest in them, whether you work outside the home or not.

Clearly, you are doing a fine job of staying connected with your children and balancing your job, too. Do not allow cultural myths to undermine your family happiness or shadow you with false foreboding. Work toward acknowledging your success, while eliminating the guilt. All too often, moms accept blame for the things that go awry, but give themselves little credit for all that goes well.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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