For the past couple of months, my 3-year-old daughter, Emma, has cried when I prepare to leave for work. She loves our nanny; often, a few minutes after I depart, I peek in the window and see Emma nestled up close to her, happily chatting away. Yet I can’t help feeling physically pained when Emma wraps herself around me, trying to keep me at home.
I have worked since Emma’s older brother, Max, was 4 months old. My schedule is flexible, and I’m able to be home most afternoons. Still, I feel guilty.
Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn believes that many working mothers feel more guilt than necessary. As the leader of a study released this May from Harvard Business School’s new Gender Initiative, she found that daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, work more hours, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time. The study, which examined data from 24 countries and 20,000 people, also found that women whose mothers worked are more likely to hold supervisory positions. For men, having a working mother didn’t seem to affect their professional fortunes, the researchers found, but those whose mothers worked do spend more hours each week caring for family members.
McGinn says working moms should feel good about the models they’re setting for their children. “For a long time we’ve been told that being home is the best thing for our kids,” she says. But that may not actually be the case. “Working moms affect their children’s gender attitudes, their beliefs about what is ‘right’ and ‘normal’ for women. They learn that it’s reasonable for women to work and for men to be involved at home.” They also do as well, if not better, at school, both in terms of academic achievement and behavior, as kids whose mothers stay home, McGinn says, citing a 2010 study published in Psychological Bulletin by Rachel G. Lucas-Thompson.
Of course, many parents have no choice but to work — the United States is the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid maternity leave — and for many mothers there is no alternative to earning a living. But to talk to local women in families where one parent could afford to stay home is to see a world where women continue to wrestle with their choices.
Michelle Juralewicz, a senior public relations executive who lives in Jamaica Plain, took eight weeks maternity leave after the birth of her 14-month-old son. While she saw going back to work as a financial necessity, Juralewicz, 33, says she also wasn’t ready to put her career momentum on hold. Her parents ran their own staffing business when she and her three siblings were growing up. “I always viewed a career as a natural path for women and that they could be equal partners with men — though society did its best to rebuke that,” says Juralewicz, who shares household duties equally with her husband.
Working and raising kids is inevitably a juggling act. “I feel like I’m treading water a lot of the time,” says Megan Pesce, an Acton mother of two boys, ages 8 and 11, and an interior designer. “It can be overwhelming to wear both hats. I sometimes wonder if am I doing well enough in both jobs, or just average.” But Pesce, 41, always knew she wanted to have a career.
Pesce’s mother worked the night shift as a nurse when she and her two younger brothers were growing up. “My mom was a single mother who worked out of necessity. She got her master’s degree and became a forensic nurse,” says Pesce. “She helped me realize how valuable I can be. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to do this without her example.”
Pesce does billing at night and often has client appointments in the evenings; her husband, an entrepreneur, is instrumental in keeping the household running. “I want to be around my kids as much as possible,” she says. “I go to their sports practices and games. They understand that I work, but they know that family is very important.”
A mother who chooses to stay home can face a different struggle: the challenge of raising a family on one income. Yet for Cambridge mother Kerry McDonald, it’s a sacrifice worth making. McDonald, 38, ran a successful corporate training consulting company. “Throughout my pregnancy, I could not have imagined that I wouldn’t go back to work. My work was my baby,” she recalls. “I thought I’d take a few months off. Then I found myself feeding my daughter on demand, wearing her in a sling, being responsive to her cries, and I realized that I wanted to be there to meet all of her needs.”
McDonald now has four children and is co-editor of “Choosing Home,” a recently published e-book of essays by women who have left careers to pursue stay-at-home motherhood. She feels that community support for stay-at-home moms is dwindling.
“I think now as a society we generally prioritize work, money, and consumption over family, children, and home,” says McDonald. She is put off by the findings in McGinn’s study. “I find it disturbing that it highlights job titles and salaries as the ultimate indicator of a successful life.”
Angela Stevenson, a real estate broker in Hingham, has seen many sides of the working life since becoming a parent seven years ago. The mom of three worked in media advertising sales, took 2½ years off after having twins, and then ran a sales territory for a technology company that required extensive business travel. She switched to her current field for its proximity and flexibility.
“When I was a new mom, it seemed like there could have been a right choice or a wrong choice, and now that I have done it both ways I don’t feel like that,” says Stevenson. “I got a lot of satisfaction from being home full-time, and I enjoy working. I think my stress level was about the same in both scenarios.”
Stevenson’s mother worked when she was growing up. “I saw her finish her undergraduate and master’s degrees, and I was always proud of her. I remember her teaching me that the best thing you can have is the opportunity to have options, and I see that as so true now.”
McGinn notes that amid all the change in the modern workplace, parents have found ways to remain present. “The number of hours parents spend with their children has remained steady since the 1960s. . . . Back then mothers weren’t sitting around playing blocks with their kids all day. They were doing everything around the house and the kids were off outside,” she says.
That may mean that, despite having parents who may struggle to be everywhere at once, kids themselves are getting just as much attention. “The total number of hours parents spend with kids now includes fathers, who are more involved than ever,” McGinn says. “And when working mothers are with their children, their time together is more focused.”
Jaci Conry is a regular contributor to the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.