The stories reported that three Columbia University researchers analyzed data from a three-year child-care study of 1,000 families in 10 cities. They found that 3-year-olds scored a significant six points less on the Bracken Test, which assesses children's knowledge of colors, letters, numbers, shapes, and comparisons, if their mothers worked more than 30 hours a week by the time the child was 9 months old. Considering that 75% of women are back on the job by a child's ninth month, myself included, I figured other working mothers were also assessing the damage they had inflicted on their children.
But first, consider the following: The women most likely to fret about this study are those who don't need to worry. They're likely to be highly educated, highly paid professionals, and their children tend to do well in school, notes Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute in New York.
MAN POWER. These women also have the most flexible work and babysitting arrangements. Many have the option to work from home a couple of days a week or delay their return to the office. And they also are likely to have the resources to purchase high-quality child care. "For the woman who has the best child care possible and who is sensitive to her child when she is home," there is no difference between her children and those of mothers who stay home, says Jane Waldfogel, an associate professor of social work who is a co-author of the study.
One thing the study didn't account for was the father's contribution. In our family, my husband easily carries 50% of the home-life load, which definitely helps decrease my stress and increase my "maternal sensitivity" -- my ability to be responsive to my children, which, along with quality of child care, number of hours in child care, and home environment, were the areas the researchers examined. While this study didn't include the impact of a father's efforts, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, professor of child development and another co-author, is now researching the effects of shared caregiving on children under 3 who have two working parents. "The more shared caregiving there is among couples, the less likely there would be a negative effect on the children," she says.
Another thing to keep in mind is that studies are just that. They're helpful, but they don't account for many real-world situations. That means no working mother should second-guess the decisions she has made based on research findings.
FORMULATING THE FIXES. What these study results can do is help with broader national policy decisions. The goal is to give women with lower incomes work flexibility and child-care arrangements similar to those enjoyed by higher-earning professionals. At this point, the debate returns to how best to increase quality child-care options, improve family-leave policies, and offer more part-time and flextime opportunities. Since the U.S. has among the worst work-family policies of all Western industrialized countries, those policies are certainly worth changing.
Yet while policy prescriptions may be useful for government planning, it's important for women to separate the public from the personal. If working moms don't focus on what is best for them and their families, they will only be adding stress to an already difficult job-vs.-home-life balance. And that does neither the mother, nor her children, any good. Gutner is the Women & Investing columnist for BusinessWeek.