(LifeWire) -- When Christine Durst, 45, had her first child in 1987, she received a package from her boss while recuperating in the hospital. But instead of a baby gift, she found something else: year-end tax forms to complete.
"My son lay sleeping in his bed next to mine while I toiled away in the middle of the night," Durst recalls. "I was the business manager. If I didn't do the work, it wouldn't get done."
She worked at that job until 1993, two years after the birth of her second child, a girl. Today, her children grown, Durst works from home. But she regrets missing those early years with the kids. "I felt tremendous guilt about being away from home, and I felt terrible about the stress I brought home from the job."
While Durst, of Woodstock, Connecticut, looks back with regrets, Karol Rose, 64, of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, doesn't. Rose, an executive with FlexPaths, a women-owned consulting business specializing in workplace flexibility, raised two boys while working full time, taking off only a few months when they were born. "I think my sons liked that I had a job," Rose says. "You know, too much focus isn't great for children, either."
Motherhood brings many difficult decisions, but perhaps the most fiercely debated is whether women should work outside the home, especially when their children are small. Whatever their decision, the choice is rarely easy.
Both mothers who go back to work and those who care for children at home agree on one thing: A woman's decision to work outside the home is scrutinized by her peers and society in general. Even experts are divided on the benefits or risks of mothers working full time.
Debra Condren, author of "Ambition is Not a Dirty Word: A Woman's Guide to Earning Her Worth and Achieving Her Dreams," says women face an impossible double standard.
"[Society says] we're bad mothers if we go back to work and that we're pampered or foolish if we stay home," says Condren, a psychologist and founding president of Business Psychology Solutions, a business coaching firm.
These mixed messages women receive can be unhealthy. "We end up being our own worst enemies," she says. Moreover, Condren adds, mothers who work and those who stay home often end up judging one another.
But Dr. Scott Haltzman, a clinical psychiatrist and an assistant professor at Brown University, says it's important that mothers focus on their children. "It's very clear to me, from what I've seen in my clients, that children who are put in day care, not raised by their mothers at home, feel a real loss," he says. "They feel the absence of those parents and it affects how they want to parent their own children."
Haltzman, who wrote the book "Happily Married Women: How to Get More Out of Your Relationship by Doing Less," says women suffer when they try to juggle career and parenthood. "If you have a conversation with women who have their pedal to the metal in the workplace and trying to excel at motherhood, you'll find that these women are juggling and they are exhausted," he says.
Besides his own research into marriage and motherhood, Haltzman also cites a study -- "What's Love Got To Do With It? Equality, Equity, Commitment and Women's Marital Quality," released last year by University of Virginia sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock -- that found women are happiest in clearly defined and traditional marital roles.
Condren disagrees. She says women can balance career and motherhood, despite what she sees as media bias against working moms. "Each time the media reports an interview with yet another professional woman who has seen the light and taken time out for motherhood, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. Finally, this woman has figured out what's really important," says Condren. "But keeping yourself from your own ambitions, dreams and career goals can be soul destroying."
Can you have it both ways?
Barbara Curtis, 60, of Washington and a mother of 12, believes a mother's foremost responsibility is raising her children.
"I've been a single mom and I know there are circumstances where women need to work, but there are a lot of women who choose to work when they don't have to," she says. "They crave that attention and status a job gives them."
Curtis, whose blog, Mommylife.net, is about her experiences as a mother, teacher and writer, thinks more women should stay home. "You have to cultivate those early years. The most important work in the world is raising children," she says. Moreover, "it takes a certain kind of maturity and self-awareness to be comfortable, because you don't get your ego stroked or awarded like you do on a job."
But other women say they wouldn't be happy or feel healthy if they spent every second with their offspring. Their solution is a mix of work and caring for their children.
"My brain would turn to mush, and I love being with my children," says Jennifer Cooper, 32, of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who quit her job as a scientist to raise her children, now 3 and 4. Cooper says she found the perfect solution: She turned her love for wine into a work-from-home job with the Traveling Vineyard.
She works a few evenings a week when her husband is home and spends days with her children. Cooper plans to continue her wine business when the kids start school, but she'll never go back full time. "Some of my friends have their kids in day care and they only get to see their children for a couple of hours a day," she says. "Looking back, I don't want to have missed a moment of their lives.
"My parents had to work to make ends meet and I missed having them at home. I don't want to have regrets."
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Maya Dollarhide Lucca is a freelance writer living in New York.
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