Working mom, smarter kid? This is what science says

Etterbeek, a Monday night like any other for Nina, 10, and Alban, 7. Doing homework, bathing, a warmed, freshly prepared meal at 7:45 sharp, games until 8, then to bed, lights out. “Alban falls asleep around 8:30 am and I can read in bed until 9 am, until Mom comes home. We leave the door open so she can give us another kiss. We’re used to her always coming home last,” says the girl, for whom this unchanging routine seems to be valid forever. Their mother, Aliénor, now 41, went back to work after the birth of each child.

As a businesswoman at the head of a team of eight, she only sees them on Wednesday evenings and Sundays. Yet she does not feel like an absent mother, even though the guilt is great and the pressure is high. “Nothing is better for the children than their mother”, “you live past them”, “they will resent you later”… not a single comment is spared me. Even my own mother is among the critics; she considers my personal development thanks to my work a selfish choice: in her eyes it is incompatible with the status of mother. My brother, a high-ranking official who is perpetually absent, is nevertheless considered a great father. My sister-in-law sacrificed her career and chose a part-time job for her family. So she is regarded as a wonderful mother and wife, and I as an unworthy, individualistic and self-centered mama.”

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What is wrong? It’s a question of gender again

“It is clear that patriarchal society still does not allow all women to make a choice without prejudice. Reminders to be available as a mother still work as a terribly stigmatizing criterion in society,” explains Isabella Lenarduzzi, social entrepreneur, founder and director of JUMP. She aspires to end inequality between men and women in the workplace. When a child is born in 2022, a woman and a man still do not face the same choices. A study by the National Bank of Belgium confirms this.

Economists Céline Piton and Maud Nautet examined the impact of parenthood on the careers of men and women. “When a child is born, men and women face very different choices when it comes to participating in the labor market. Giving up a job or working less appears to be mainly a female choice. Both options put women at a disadvantage in terms of opportunity and reward. For men, on the other hand, the effect of parenthood is neutral or even an incentive to work more. In other words, only women have to make a trade-off between having children and a career, which is not the case for men,” the study said.

After all, in the collective imagination, children of working mothers are less well off than others. “My sister and I are daughters of doctors. They were very absent, but it didn’t bother us. We were used to Mom being just as busy as Dad. They were there at key moments, they are our role models and have motivated us to be like them. The value that work has has always been clear to us. It’s a way to achieve full self-fulfillment and a means in and of itself to find happiness,” says pregnant Alexia, 32, who is determined to continue working as a Public Relations Manager for an international company, baby or not. .

Social progress

Despite social progress, the feminization of the labor market still seems to suffer from a sneaky form of guilt: as if an infant’s development depends only on the bond with its mother, who is there anyway. Psychoanalyst Sylviane Giampino came to this conclusion more than twenty years ago. Her brilliant book is regularly reissued and is a must-read. It corrects the prejudices about the relationship between a child’s development and a mother, who is working or not. The author points in particular to the insidious guilt. The environment causes that guilt and it disrupts the relationship with the children, the life of the couple and the working life. She proposes a different vision, responding to the needs of the child and how to meet them, even in the absence of the mother.

According to her, everything depends on the involvement of the father, the quality of childcare and the organization of work. Isabella Lenarduzzi points out that “Mothers who work too much, too little, or not at all almost always feel guilty. But those who have chosen a career are the most stigmatized. It is as if the natural place for women is in the domestic sphere and it is not legitimate to invest in other spheres. Yet women are increasingly qualified: 59% of university graduates in the European Union are women. But as soon as women become mothers, many men spontaneously assume a hyperstereotypical position, as if they are automatically responsible for ensuring the financial well-being of the family, while the mother is assigned the emotional care and well-being of the family, as a kind of voluntary servitude. It seems like an unchanging conditioning that is imposed on generation after generation – almost unconsciously.” Sandrine Rousseau, a French ecofeminist, reminded us on Twitter last March that in 11 years men have increased their working time in the household… by one minute a day and that at this rate it will take 6300 years to achieve equality. “The conviction that the time that a child spends especially with its mother is essential for its development and future creates an enormous amount of guilt. The pressure is gender specific and very high. The pillar of support for a child is not his mother, but both parents. The mental burden must be shared!” hammers Isabella Lenarduzzi.

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To trust

A study from the University of Maryland already in 2010 showed that the quality of the time the child spends with the parents weighs more than the quantity when developing well. Children with working mothers experience no disadvantages compared to children with mothers who devote all their time to them. Numerous recent scientific studies have repeatedly disproved the myth that an infrequent mother has harmful effects on child development. But they receive very little attention in the media. What do we learn from this? That the mother’s income and education level are very closely related to the future success of her children. As early as the 1990s, The Observer reported on a study of 17,000 Britons that found that the intellectual performance and abilities of children whose mothers returned to work in the month before their first birthday were no worse. At the time, researcher Heather Joshi noted that a stable family environment is actually more important, even if we pay little attention to it.

Learning to trust each other is also part of the solution, says Sylviane Giampino: “When a woman wants to go out into the wide world, she is stopped by her mother. The internal tug-of-war, the constant rebalancing, of which women are so often blamed, requires a strong attitude. Being present at important moments (birthdays, school performances), sharing real quality moments (a Sunday with the family) and the more sensitive events (difficulties with a subject at school, an argument with a classmate)… the key also lies in the the way we act as women.”

So that being a super mom is no longer used as a criterion for assessment, Isabella Lenarduzzi also says: “The ideal model is not to be a sacrificial mom! It should no longer be a taboo to claim that you also want to live up to your professional potential. We must fight against being judged solely on our ability as mothers. These kinds of dictates have alienated us too much from who we are as women. Let’s dare to listen to ourselves more.”

Margo Verhasselt

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Never had a thing for geometric shapes until she moved to the center of Brussels and now advertises the capital more than say the tourist office. Says a hell of a lot of ‘it is what it is’ for someone who doesn’t really have a clue of what she’s doing, except in terms of lifestyle trends. Always available for an early apero with a nice chat on an even cooler terrace.

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The article is in Dutch

Tags: Working mom smarter kid science

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