Let's Have a Truce on Mother's Day

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Have you ever come home from vacation and picked up a newspaper to learn that there's some really big war going on — but you can't figure out exactly what they're fighting about?

I'm not talking about the Balkans or the Middle East or Sri Lanka.

I'm talking about the Mommy Wars.

I usually rely on pundits to explain a war to me, but does it seem like this war's pundits are prone to exaggeration?

Some pundits would have me believe that working moms are evil. They drive by the day care center at 15 mph and push their kids out the open door. "Tuck and roll!" they command, speeding off to careers where they gather up against the glass ceiling like fish. Blinded by their devotion to the company, these moms ignore the scientific research on how day-care children are more disobedient and don't have social skills. Heavily dependent on their nannies, these moms couldn't make chocolate milk if they tried, and they certainly don't know that WD-40 is what gets crayon marks off a television screen.

Other pundits would have me believe that homemakers are wicked. I'm not sure what's so wicked about them. Apparently they don't let their children outdoors without two undershirts and a hooded jacket. And they rat out neighbors who don't sew their own Halloween costumes. Their children grow up thinking a woman's place is in the kitchen, or on the couch watching reruns of Ellen. They deny their own oppression, and their depression too. Blinded by their devotion to full-time motherhood, they ignore the scientific research on how day-care children have more verbal skills and less asthma.

What these two sides are fighting over, to put it bluntly, is who's the better mother. But every war is supposed to have a battle line, and amid the chaos of this war, I've been unable to find that battle line.

At first I thought the battle line was day care. Should a kid be with mom or go to preschool? But I looked at the research numbers, and now I'm confused again. Because 48% of stay-at-home moms send their 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds to preschool. Which is not that different a percentage from working moms, 53% of whom send their pre-Ks to preschool. This whole war can't be over that 5% difference, can it?

I started wondering where the kids of working moms go if not to preschool. It turns out they're being cared for by extended family, like grandparents. In fact, far more young kids (age 1 to 3) are in the care of relatives than in all the nursery schools and day-care centers combined. So maybe this war is about who gets to use the grandparents. But nobody steals grandparents — it must be something else.

So this war must be about how much time kids get with their parents. The sociologists keep meticulous track of this. For decades, they've had moms fill out time diaries, chronicling how they allocate their minutes. This research makes an important distinction between accessible time and engaged time. Accessible time is when the parent is present, but the kid is playing or watching television while mom cooks and cleans. Engaged time is direct interaction — snuggling, talking, reading books, eating together, and checking homework. A fascinating report on this came out last week from Suzanne Bianchi at the University of Maryland. She concluded that a working mom engages with her child 42 minutes less per day than a stay-at-home mom.

You might wonder how could it average only 42 minutes difference, when mom is home for nine hours. Remember that stay-at-home moms send their children to school, and often to after-school enrichment programs. Working moms, meanwhile, really kick it up a notch when they come home. They pack a ton of direct interaction into those three hours before bedtime.

This whole war couldn't be about those 42 minutes, could it? Good things can happen in 42 minutes a day, but to put it in perspective, both stay-at-home moms and working moms spend over 16 hours a week taking showers, getting dressed and doing their hair.

In fact, when you look at Bianchi's time charts, it's surprising how similar the lives are of working moms and homemakers. Not much separates them, and even less separates their kids.

For instance, both types of mom drive their children to activities on average almost three days a week. Both types of mom get their children to help with chores almost five days a week. Both eat dinner with their kids nearly five days a week. Both moms — in combination with the dads — help kids with homework more than six times a week.

I'm not sure why these moms get such a bad rap from the pundits. I know I'm just a bystander who doesn't get it, but both types of moms sound like great moms to me. Both praise their children more than four days a week. Both laugh with their children more than five days a week. Both kiss and hug their children more than five days a week.

I recognize that there will always be a war over who is the better mother. I've read enough war coverage to know this has no ending. But I think a kid is lucky to have either type of mom, and so I'm not going to pick sides. I'm with the grandparents. Neutral as the Red Cross.