Mother’s Employment: Implications for the Family


America is currently witnessing an unprecedented movement of women into the work force. More than half the X4 million adult females in this country are now formally employed, and the numbers are steadily rising; only seven percent of the families are structured according to the traditional model of supportive father and homemaking mother. Whether or not this trend is healthy or pathological is one of the most volatile issues of our time, and one, which has generated heated debates and considerable conflict. Alas, everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject. You’re about to read mine.

It would be presumptuous for any family specialist, particularly a man, to tell the women of America how to live their lives. The decision to have a career or be a homemaker is an intensely personal choice that can only be made by a woman and her husband. Indeed, the search for employment is often required by the inflationary pressures of today’s economy. And there are marital disruptions where the husband either cannot work or is removed from the home. These and related problems obviously demand the financial contribution of the women involved. Thus, when a Christian wife and mother concludes that she must enter the labor force, the response from her friends and associates should be one of tolerance and understanding.

I must honestly report my observation, however, that working wives and their families often face some special frustrations and problems. Getting a job, especially for the mother of small children, can produce a whole catalog of new challenges, which she may not comprehend in the beginning. In fact, I am concerned about the untruthful messages often given to the mother who can choose whether to work or stay home. Specifically, there are three false concepts being energetically conveyed to her through various forms of feminist propaganda. Let me consider them individually.

1. Every female in America who isn’t “working” is being cheated and exploited by the male dominated society in which she lives. If she has any gumption or intelligence, she’ll seek fulfillment in a career.

Since the beginning of human existence, women in most cultures have identified themselves with child rearing and nest building. It was an honorable occupation that required no apology. How has it happened, then, that homemaking has fallen on such lean times in the Western world? Why do women who remain at home in the company of little children feel such disrespect from the society in which they live? A partial answer to these questions can be found in the incessant bombardment by the media on all traditional Judeo-Christian values. Radio, television, the press and the entertainment industry have literally (and deliberately) changed the way America thinks. Five years have passed since Barbara Walters and Tom Snyder hosted a three-hour television special on the subject of women. It was aired on NBC in prime time, and captured the attention of the country for one full evening. (What fantastic power for social change has been brought by the tube!) I watched Walters and Snyder carefully on that occasion, and in fact, taped the program for future reference. Their stated purpose was to evaluate the world of women at that time, examining the many activities and involvement’s of the feminine gender. What resulted, however, was a powerful propaganda piece for the movement. Not once in the three-hour program was the role of the homemaker mentioned, except to refer indirectly to this outmoded responsibility in vaguely derogatory terms. Perhaps 35 million homemakers live and breathe in this country, yet they were totally excluded from a broadcast dedicated to the world of women. I’m sure they got the message. That is but one illustration of how the media bias against traditional femininity has produced the prejudice women now feel.

It is my opinion, accordingly, that many women have accepted employment as a means of coping with the disrespect that they experienced as full-time mothers. To understand this process, let’s look at a contrived example. Suppose it suddenly became very unpopular to be a dentist. Suppose every magazine carried an article or two about the stupidity of the tooth and gum boys, making them look foolish and gauche. Suppose television commercials and dramas and comedy programs all poked fun at the same battered target. Suppose the humor associated with dentistry then died, leaving contempt and general disrespect in its place. Suppose the men in white were ignored at social gatherings and their wives were excluded from “in” group activities. Suppose dentists had difficulty hiring assistants and associates because no one wanted his friends to know he was working for a “tooth fairy.” What would happen if all social status were suddenly drained from the profession of dentistry? I suspect that it would soon become very difficult to get a cavity drilled and filled.

The illustration is extreme, admittedly, but the analogy to women can hardly be missed. Housewives have been teased and ridiculed and disrespected. They have been the butt of jokes and sordid humor until the subject is no longer funny. As I have spoken to family groups across the country, great frustration has been expressed by women who have been made to feel dumb and foolish for wanting to stay at home. Those who are dedicated to their responsibilities are currently being mocked in women’s magazines as “Super-moms.” They have heard the prevailing opinion: “There must be something wrong with those strange creatures who seem to like domestic duties and responsibilities.” Closely related to the myth that “homemakers are losers” is a similar distortion related to child rearing.

2. Children, even those under five years of age, don’t really need the extensive ‘nurturing and involvement of their mothers, anyway. They will become more independent and assertive if raised in various child-care settings.

If the above statement were accurate, it would conveniently expunge all guilt from the consciences of over committed parents. But it simply won’t square with scientific knowledge. I attended a national conference on child development held in Miami, Florida, a few years ago. Virtually every report of research presented during that three-day meeting ended with the same conclusion: the mother-child relationship is absolutely vital to healthy development of children. The final speaker of the conference was Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, the foremost authority on child development today. He concluded his remarks by saying that feminine responsibilities are so vital to the next generation that the future of our nation actually depends on how we “see” our women. I agree. Nevertheless modern women are struggling to convince themselves that state sponsored child -care centers offer a convenient substitute for the traditional family concept. It will not work! It hasn’t succeeded in the countries where it has been tried. As Dr. Bronfenbrenner wrote: “. . . with the withdrawal of the social supports for the family to which I alluded . . . the position of women and mothers has become more and more isolated. With the breakdown of the community, the neighborhood and the extended family, an increasing responsibility for the care and upbringing of children has fallen on the young mother. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that many young women in America are in revolt. I understand and share their sense of rage, but I fear the consequences of some of the solutions they advocate, which will have the effect of isolating children still further from the kind of care and attention they need.”‘

Children cannot raise themselves properly. This fact was illustrated again in a recent conversation with a research psychologist who visited my office. He had been studying the early childhoods of inmates at a state prison in Arizona. He and his associates were seeking to discover the common characteristics, which the prisoners shared, hoping to unlock the causes for their antisocial behavior. It was initially assumed that poverty would be the common thread, but their findings contradicted this expectation. The inmates came from all socioeconomic levels of society, though most of them attempted to excuse their crimes by professing to have been poor. Instead, the researchers discovered one fundamental characteristic shared by the men: an absence of adult contact in their early home lives. As children, they spent most of their time in the company of their peers . . . or altogether alone. Such was the childhood of Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson, and many other perpetrators of violent crimes later in life. The conclusion is inescapable: there is no substitute for loving parental leadership in the early development of children.

But my intense personal opinions on this matter of “preschool mothering” are not only based on scientific evidence and professional experience. My views have also been greatly influenced within my own home. Let me share a statement I wrote five years ago in my book, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. “Our two children are infinitely complex, as are all children, and my wife and I want to guide the formative years ourselves. Danae is nine years old. She will be an adolescent in four more seasons, and 1 am admittedly jealous of anything robbing me of these remaining days of her childhood. Every moment is precious to me. Ryan is now four. Not only is he in constant motion, but he is also in a state of rapid physical and emotional change. At times it is almost frightening to see how dynamic is the development of my little toddler. When I leave home for a four- or five-day speaking trip, Ryan is a noticeably different child upon my return. The building blocks for his future emotional and physical stability are clearly being laid moment by moment, stone upon stone, precept upon precept. Now I ask you who disagree with what I have written; to whom am I going to submit the task of guiding that unfolding process of development? Who will care enough to make the necessary investment if my wife and I are too busy for the job? What babysitter will take our place? What group oriented facility can possibly provide the individual love and guidance, which Ryan needs and deserves? Who will represent my values and beliefs to my son and daughter and be ready to answer their questions during the peak of interest? To whom will I surrender the prime time experiences of their day? The rest of the world can make its own choice, but as for me and my house, we welcome the opportunity to shape the two little lives which have been loaned to us. And I worry about a nation, which calls that task ‘unrewarding and unfulfilling and boring.’ ” This brings us to the third and final myth to be considered.

3. Most mothers of small children can work all day and still have the energy to meet their family obligations . . . perhaps even better than if they remained at home.

There is only so much energy within the human body for expenditure during each twenty-four hours, and when it is invested in one place it is not available for use in another. It is highly improbable that the average woman can arise early in the morning and get her family fed and located for the day, then work from 9:00 to 5:00, drive home from 5:01 to 5:30, and still have the energy to assault her “home-work” from 5:31 until midnight. Oh, she may cook dinner and handle the major household chores, but few women alive are equipped with the super-strength necessary at the end of a workday to meet the emotional needs of their children, to train and guide and discipline, to build self-esteem, to teach the true values of life, and beyond all that, to maintain a healthy marital relationship as well. Perhaps the task can be accomplished for a week or a month, or even a season. But for years on end? I simply don’t believe it. To the contrary, I have observed that exhausted wives and mothers often become irritable, grouchy, and frustrated, setting the stage for conflict within the home. As such, I believe more divorces are caused by mutual over commitment by husbands and wives than all other factors combined. It is the number one marriage killer!


Circumstances may require that wives and mothers seek full-time employment outside the home. In those instances, Christian onlookers should express tolerant understanding of the person’s unspoken needs and obligations. However, the decision for Mom to work has profound implications for her family and especially for her small children. That decision must be made in the full light of reality . . . being unedited by the biases of the women’s movement. And most importantly, we dare not strip the dignity from the most noble occupation in the universe . . . that of molding little lives during their period of greatest vulnerability.

I must in conclusion address an equally important comment to husbands and fathers, for that man who appreciates the willingness of his wife to stand against the tide of public opinion . . . staying at home in her empty neighborhood in the exclusive company of jelly-faced toddlers and strong-willed adolescents . . . it is about time he gave her some help. I’m not merely suggesting that he wash the dishes or sweep the floor. I’m referring to the provision of emotional support . . . of conversation . . . of making her feel like a lady . . . of building her ego . . . of giving her one day of recreation a week . . . of taking her out to dinner . . . of telling her that he loves her. Without these armaments, she is left defenseless against the foes of the family . . . the foes of his family.

Let me conclude by sharing a note written to me recently by a ten-year-old boy. He said:

Dear Dr. Dobson:

I have a working mom and a working dad and I would like to know what us kids can do.


I will permit America’s parents to respond to Brian’s question. They are, after all, the only ones who can provide a satisfactory answer to it.