The toxic myth that working moms fail their kids is fueled by decades-old bad science

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At some point in the last three decades, the clock became the measure for judging parents. How much time do you spend with your kids? The more the better, right?

My first daughter was born in 2012, when nearly every mother I knew–and the majority of moms in America–held jobs. But from the moment I switched to maternity pants, people asked me whether I planned to quit my job. That is, would I be spending my time with the baby, or would she be handed off to some “stranger.” (Incidentally, both my husband and I work in media. We work similar hours, for similar pay. And yet no one ever asked him these questions.)

Measuring time became how I channeled my insecurities as I struggled to figure out how to be a mom to one girl, and then two. I would count the hours the girls spent at daycare and compare them to what they spent with us. I worried the sitters were raising them more than we were. That worry became the starting point for the video above, which my husband, Erik German, and I researched and produced together.

We found the concern that working moms shortchange their kids was decades in the making. The more women worked, the greater the public anxiety, and not just in America. It came to a head in the early 1990s, when misreported research formed the basis of a policy paper that appeared to show just how many hours were being stolen from kids. That false statistic exploded into the popular consciousness.

It’s one of those ideas that somehow feels true, even when anchors and talk show hosts frame it as a question: “Do we really put our kids at risk every time we head to the office?” The feeling becomes especially pernicious when, as with the so-called mommy wars, the media stages it as a fight between individual women, over their supposed choices.

In that context, the truth we uncovered is even more astonishing. Rather than spending less time with their kids, research shows that, on average, parents actually spend more total time with their kids now than they ever have. That’s total time, meaning it includes moments when parents are, say, doing dishes, and their kids are nearby, doing something else.

When you look just at time spent interacting—that’s singing and reading to their kids, feeding and physically caring for them—you find that by 2000 working mothers spent as much time as stay-at-home moms did back in 1975. It’s certainly counterintuitive. It also has a grounding in science. (You’ll see in the video how even the researchers themselves were surprised.)

Focusing relentlessly on total time spent parenting misses the point. Mothers who work full time will never spend as much total time in the presence of their children as mothers who stay at home, though the time spent interacting with them often ends up about the same. Regardless, that’s not what’s important. Research keeps showing that parental time tallies are lousy predictors of how well children turn out.

We obviously need to spend time with our children. And working parents need to have support that allows that. But more time by itself isn’t necessarily better.

And, if you think about all the things that affect your kids, or affected you growing up, the research starts to feel more obvious. How safe was your home or neighborhood? How good was your school? How educated were your parents, and how educated did you become? Finally, how happy and fulfilled were your parents, and how was that fulfillment, or lack of it, radiated back on you?

Most of these factors I can’t control and, for good or ill, all of them will shape my daughters’ future. None of them can be measured with a clock.

The video above was produced in collaboration with Retro Report.