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Bridging the Great Motherhood Divide

We must stop blaming women and start trying to help them get where they want to be - either at home or work.

The passions that divide working mothers from those who stay at home remain one of the great unbridged chasms in American life. I received a sharp and sad reminder of that recently when I went on the radio to discuss a book I had written, one that I had hoped, perhaps naively, could move the debate about working mothers and the fate of their children beyond destructive attacks and toward thoughtful exchanges.

I no sooner put on my headphones than the barrage began.

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The other guest shot sound-bites like bullets as she tore into my thesis that working mothers can be responsible mothers and that their children can thrive. She rebuffed any attempt I made to talk about what we had in common - a concern for children and the real problems that remain in a society too indifferent to them. She signed off with a cutting line, "I have to go. I'm picking up my son at preschool" - unlike, of course, irresponsible, uncaring me.

The tragedy of our vicious, distorted debate about working motherhood is that it helps neither mothers at work nor those who want to blame mothers no matter what they do; we dismiss mothers at home as women without an identity; we dismiss mothers at work as women without a heart and a conscience.

There is still a pervasive belief that working mothers are bad for children, that working motherhood is second-rate, and that children today are suffering as a result.

That belief persists despite the preponderance of evidence suggesting that working is not the gauge of success or failure as a parent; sensitivity, commitment, and mental well-being are. In fact, the latest most comprehensive study conducted on the effects of day care by the National Institutes of Health showed no significant differences in children's behavior, their language and intellectual development, and their bond with their mothers whether their mothers work or not.

What made a difference is something called "maternal sensitivity" - how well mothers read their children's emotions and respond to them - as well as a mother's mental health, income, and educational levels.

I wondered, not for the first time, why as a society we seem so frozen in this debate. I think the answers are both within women themselves and outside in the world at large.

Although some mothers have always worked, many working mothers today are leading lives radically different from their own mothers.' The powerful, enduring images of the good mother as sacrificial, perfect, and at home still tugs at most mothers' hearts. Working does not feel right to them; they are constantly battling the thought that they are cheating their children of joys they had when they were growing up.

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Our culture does not offer a stringent, responsible alternative vision of motherhood. Mothers are not given a psychological or practical explanation of how a working mother can also satisfy children and meet their needs.

Moreover, we are right to be worried about children. There is a social and moral crisis affecting children today. Our culture is saturated with sex and violence, and children are vulnerable. Much day care available in the United States is mediocre at best, and our children deserve far better.

There are too few opportunities for engaging, well-supervised activities after school. It is natural, perhaps , to turn to the familiar and comforting idea that a mother at home will protect children from the dangers they face.

But we are trying to solve this crisis on the backs of women, by forcing them back home and denying them the freedom to participate in the wider world, to earn the independence and fulfillment that working can bring. That is the third reason we are stuck in this debate: There are ideologues who remain hostile to the very idea of women's power and autonomy.

Perhaps if we understand what forces constrain us, we can begin to move beyond them and focus on the real issues - how we fail to provide mothers high-quality, reasonably-priced day care and after-school care, job flexibility, and paid family leaves so they can afford to spend more time with their infants. Only then can we begin to stop blaming women and start trying to help them get where they want to be - either at home or at work.

Maybe then I can talk, mother to mother, and join hands across the divide that does not have to be.

* Susan Chira, deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, is author of 'A Mother's Place' (HarperCollins).

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