Kids are expensive! And the fact of the matter is, in the last several decades American wages have not increased at anywhere near the rate of inflation for housing, education, healthcare and childcare. People have to work to put food on the table. So it’s silly to spend time feeling guilty for working to support yourself and your family. It turns out that statistically speaking, most parents who do stay home to take care of their children full-time, are not necessarily doing so because they have the means to stay home and choose to devote themselves to care work, but are doing so because of an inability to find work that pays highly enough to balance out the cost of childcare.
Even if you do have the means to make a genuinely free choice on this matter, and you choose to work outside the home and continue your career, there’s nothing wrong with that! You are a full person, not only a parent. If you find value and fulfillment in your work in addition a paycheck, that’s wonderful and valid.
Of course, not feeling guilty about something is easier said than done, especially when you’re facing external judgment. Western culture exalts the image of the 1950s stay-at-home mom. The cult of true womanhood defines women entirely in relation to their parental status, and penalizes feminine-presenting people for wanting a life and roles that extend beyond child-rearing. (On the flip side, dominant culture demonizes black mothers who stay at home, stereotyping them as that racist, Reagan-esque bogeywoman: the welfare queen.) As a result of these internalized attitudes, people often judge white new moms for working outside the home, questioning their choice and the well-being of the baby; and they judge moms of color for wanting to parent at all.
In reality, a study has shown that kids who grow up with two parents working outside the home become adults who are just as happy as those who grew up with one parent taking care of them full-time. Additionally, boys who grow up with a mother working outside the home are more likely [than boys who don’t] to take on a more caring role in the family as adults; and girls who grow up with a mother working outside the home are more likely [than girls who don’t] to have successful careers.
Not to mention, this hyper-focus on the mother’s role in raising a baby is a pretty recent development. For most of human history (and in many contemporary cultures, and in many American families today), people didn’t live in nuclear families. We lived in communal villages and inter-generational families, with siblings, older children, grandparents, and neighbors all playing roles in taking care of a baby and raising a child. This clan extends in our culture today to include nannies, teachers, friends, step-parents, and so on. It is historically normal and fine for a baby to receive care from a variety of adults!
And, the exposure to other children in daycares and nursery schools strengthens babies’ immune systems and teaches them social skills to boot.
2. Feeding your baby formula OR continuing to breastfeed
Breastfeeding and breast-pumping take a lot of time, energy and space. Some babies are very resistant to breast-feeding and do better with a bottle. Beyond that, even though the Affordable Care Act mandates employers to accommodate lactating employees with designated, private space, a study found 60% of employers to be in violation of this law! It can be very difficult to work outside the home and continue breastfeeding. But many new parents will either push on despite inadequate accommodations, give up on the workplace, or feel serious guilt about switching to formula.
However, though people love to champion the health benefits of breast milk (stronger immune system, higher IQ, fewer ear infections, and lower risks of obesity!), the science to back them up is not very strong. Basically, there just is not significant evidence to suggest that the choice of breast milk vs. formula will make a huge difference in your baby’s health. Even studies that do show health benefits from breast milk are unable to determine whether those benefits derive from the breast milk, or from the socioeconomic environment that babies with parents who have time to breastfeed tend to grow up in.
Switching to formula also may open up possibilities for more equitable childcare. It’s easier for a non-breastfeeding parent or family member to take on an equitable role in caring for a baby if they also have the power to feed the baby, with a bottle.
On the flip side, however, it’s certainly possible for non-lactating parents and loved ones to form close care-taking relationships with the baby while one parent continues to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is the right choice for plenty of parents. It’s nutritious and natural, it can provide wonderful bonding, and you don’t have to run to the store to get it! It would be ludicrous to suggest that parents who want to and can feasibly breastfeed should switch to formula, in submission to labor rights violations. We should absolutely fight collectively and individually for workplaces to follow the law and accommodate the needs of lactating parents, so that everyone has the freedom to choose what works best for their family. Just know that whichever you go, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it — your baby is going to turn out fine either way.
If you want to learn more about managing your return to work from maternity leave, check out the Back to Business Maternity Support Programs.
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