The Scientific Reason Why Moms Should Stay Home With Their Babies

As a former working mom, I want to be the first to say: It’s brutal out there. Working moms are treated as though you should work like you don’t have kids and parent as though you don’t have a job. On top of that, there’s a crushing sense of guilt you may feel about securing someone else besides yourself to care for your child.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Pexels/Наташа Чижевская

I had a lot of guilt about returning to the workforce a year ago, and I didn’t feel as empowered as I do now to take my professional life into my own hands and explore options outside the traditional 9 to 5 career. But that empowerment didn’t come without a lot of nerve-wracking anxiety and a lot of research.

We’re told that there are many benefits to kids being cared for outside the home – they might learn independence, routine, or structure differently, and become socialized at an early age. But we never seem to examine the other side of the coin. In fact, there’s an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that demonstrates how children, especially young children, benefit from having a stay-at-home mom. If you’re a mom who’s weighing her options or just curious about this research and these benefits, this is for you.

The First Three Years

We often think that adolescence and puberty are the most distinctive developmental periods of a child’s life, but in actuality, the development that occurs in the first three years of their life sets the entire tone – emotionally, physically, and mentally – for the rest of their lives. The formation of the brain specifically develops at a rapid rate before the age of three, and caregivers, whether they’re the child’s mom or not, directly influence how a child learns to process emotions and how they relate to feeling safe and secure.

The experiences children have in the first three years of life have a lasting impact, whether they’re able to remember them or not. Their right brains – which we associate with attuned natural instincts like creativity and intuition – are 85% formed when they reach three years of age. It’s during this period when they may first begin to exhibit symptoms of particular developmental disorders, like autism, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or speech delays. And, unsurprisingly, the kind of care infants and toddlers receive during their formative, early years correlates with that kind of development. Children of this age who have been mistreated, neglected, or abused are six times more likely to exhibit signs of developmental delays.

Psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, who is also a mother, believes the connection goes far beyond the superficial. Komisar points out that as the number of working mothers has increased, we’ve also seen an increase in the diagnosis of child developmental disorders. Mothers specifically, writes Komisar, help their children to learn emotional regulation and how to react to stress, and children then take these reactive measures from their toddler years well into adulthood. But as kids fail to learn this kind of emotional regulation, they become aggressive or hyperactive and afraid, which results in diagnoses of neurobehavioral disorders. Many of us as adults are likely experiencing these effects. More adults than ever have been prescribed antidepressants, and today, one in five children is diagnosed with ADHD. 

Your Emotions Influence Theirs

Nearly one-third, or over 30%, of working women are working moms with children under the age of 18, according to the Census Bureau. For perhaps the first time in history, women as a whole make up a significant portion of the workforce – and having kids doesn’t stop them from returning to work. But, it might stop them from having more children, even if they want to.

The stress that working moms undergo is distinctive from the kind of stress non-working moms experience, and understandably so. There’s pressure from your workplace to give 100% of your time, energy, and effort to them, even when your kids are your priority, and there’s pressure from your household to be fully present there even when your mind may be elsewhere. You may feel guilt being away from your children, or you may feel guilt taking time off or paid leave even if you’re offered it. Having been there myself, I can only describe it as constantly trying to keep your head above water, and consistently failing to. Either way, you’re experiencing some sort of burnout, but it’s critical to know that your stress levels don’t just affect you.

When mother and baby are separated from one another, both are producing excess levels of cortisol, research shows. Separate research from a 2021 Japanese study also found that adolescent kids with poor stress management and/or emotional and behavioral problems had mothers with a poor work-life balance that negatively spilled over into their household, creating dysfunction. Constant stress in infants can imprint negatively on their emotional regulation, resulting in the future formation of lack of self-control, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Constantly elevated stress levels in adults can affect blood pressure and result in aches and pains, depression, anxiety, and further relationship dysfunction.

Working mothers are 18% more stressed than the average individual, and that statistic increases to 40% if the mother has two children. Working moms are constantly searching for support or flexibility, and oftentimes not getting any. 

In addition to stress, moms may be unaware that they’re positively or negatively influencing the formation of their child’s attachment style. Attachment styles develop in our early years as a direct result of the relationship we have with our caregiver, and our style determines how we relate to future relationships. There are four main styles, as discovered by psychologist John Bowlby – secure (positive), ambivalent (wary), disordered (apprehensive), and avoidant (evasive). Understandably, children with poor attachment development may also have neurobehavioral or emotional disorders, and research going back to the 1980s illustrates that children who spend 20 hours per week away from their mother were more likely to develop behavioral issues.

Redefining the Conversation on Working Moms

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a family, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a career or something you're passionate about as well. But we also have to acknowledge that our employees are not our families, and that our priorities can and should change after having kids. Our children deserve our attention and our devotion, not the people who’d replace us within a week if necessary.

If we’re going to make informed decisions about the future, we deserve all the information possible. This isn’t meant to inspire guilt in us, or even inspire resentment in us for having kids. Growing a family is a more meaningful, significant legacy than any career. It’s for that reason we need to know how our choices impact a vulnerable individual who deserves protection.

It’s time to redefine the conversation altogether on working moms. We might let our employer or the passive cultural attitude around motherhood influence our choices, but we shouldn’t. We might hope that one day mothers are afforded the recognition they deserve. We might hope that one day we can depend on politicians who say they’re pro-family to enact policies that would benefit us and enable every mom to stay home if she wants to. But we can’t depend on that.

We can depend on knowing our own minds, and carefully choosing the people we have children with. We can depend on our own savviness and creativity and know that we’ll survive even if we’re not making money. We can depend on being brutally honest with ourselves when necessary, and we redefine the conversation on motherhood by giving it the power it deserves, especially in the presence of employers. We redefine it by having strict boundaries and by contradicting harmful notions – that stay-at-home moms don’t “do” anything and that a woman isn’t valuable to society if she isn’t employed. We redefine the conversation by affirming our value as women and mothers, and by creating the happiest, healthiest home environment we can.

You don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job to be employed and contribute to your household income, if that’s a concern. The possibilities for non-traditional, work-from-home positions nowadays are endless, and you can even take the time to find something you’re really excited and passionate about, like a hobby, and turn it into a business. 

We have the whole rest of our lives to work a taxable job. Even if it’s just for the first three years of a child’s life, we owe it to them and ourselves to spend time at home, if we can. 

There’s a myth that women can’t return to work after having children or after leaving the workforce. But women do it every day, and we shouldn’t let that or any other fear keep us from being where we really want to be.

Closing Thoughts

If there are two things I learned as a working mom, it’s that many people have opinions on what we do or don’t do, and that I’m much happier outside an office, but I still want to contribute financially to my household – both are possible! I also learned not to let others’ opinions of employment and motherhood shape my decisions. Everyone’s definition of success is different, and neither you nor I will ever say on our deathbeds that we regret not working more. If there’s anyone who deserves to “have it all,” it’s the children we bring into this world, and that truth should be at the forefront of any decision we ever make about our careers.

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