Third of four parts
An infant girl squirms among the toys at a day-care center, saying "ahh, ahh" and reaching out. The teacher, who is holding another infant in her arms, smiles at the girl, says "Want to play ball?" and reaches over to push a beach ball into the infant's lap.
It hardly seems the stuff of high science, let alone presidential politics. But these everyday actions of teacher and baby, scored by a watchful researcher in dozens of categories, like "responds to child's vocalizations" and "positive physical contact," are yielding specks of data in a vast national study that aims to answer some of the most emotionally charged questions in science and society today: Do working mothers imperil their children's inner security and future happiness? Does day care at an early age put children on a slow track for life?
One of the most complex research projects ever undertaken in the behavioral sciences, the federally sponsored study of more than 1,300 randomly selected babies is searching for the patterns of early care that may help a child thrive, and patterns that may hinder learning or emotional development.
The goal is as incontestably good as motherhood, but the researchers pursuing it at 10 universities around the country know they are poking into giant passions. The issues at the heart of the research have generated acid exchanges among scientists, sown temblors of fear and guilt among millions of parents, been fashioned into rhetorical clubs for bashing or defending feminism and even provided raw material for this year's presidential campaign.
The inner conflict and public debate reflect a swift transformation of the American family. It is not just that more mothers work. Since the 1950s, the change has been most striking among mothers of the youngest children.
By 1976, the first year the Census Bureau asked the precise question, 31 percent of mothers with a child under the age of 1 were in the labor force. By 1990, driven by economic need and changing attitudes about personal fulfillment, 53 percent of such mothers were.
The trend was most pronounced among college graduates with infants under the age of 1: 68 percent worked.
With the unprecedented reliance on day care and baby-sitting arrangements came the questions and the defiant, often self-justifying assertions. Gradually, too, has come the research, which scientists agree has not yet provided conclusive answers.
"Most of the research up to now has assumed that all day care is comparable," said Bettye Caldwell, an expert on child development at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a leader of the new study. "But we know that's not true. There's excellent care and abysmal care, and care by the families differs dramatically, too."
In the late 1980s, Jay Belsky of Pennsylvania State University said accumulating evidence suggested that extensive, early non-maternal care might be harming some children, creating a professional uproar. The subject was hashed out on talk shows and in midnight discussions of countless working parents.
While the debate continues today, however, there are also wide areas of agreement among the experts, including these items:
The debate is largely over care in the first year of life. Even the minority of studies that raise alarms about extensive, early non-maternal care find few differences in cognitive, social and behavioral traits when care begins after the age of 1, though of course the quality of care matters at any age.
Any negative effects from early non-maternal care itself are small, and most children of working mothers are unaffected in the traits that were measured.
For children from poor families, early, high-quality day care often means improved scores.
Even if early outside care does no harm, having a parent at home full time for at least the first three or four months is an intrinsically good thing for both parents and children.
Whatever their views of the evidence, child-development experts lament the wearying stresses that afflict many two-earner families and are virtually unanimous in their calls for generous parental leave policies, improved availability and quality of day care and greater flexibility in the workplace to allow, for example, more part-time work.
To some degree, a strident academic debate thatcame to be seen as a referendum on feminism and women's work has softened as experts acknowledged most mothers are in the work force to stay.
Attention has shifted to evidence that much of the care provided in this country, both in centers and the private homes that provide most non-parental care, does not meet high standards in crucial areas like the number of children per adult, whether children see the same adults over time, and whether children receive warm, responsive, individual attention.
"I'm very worried, not because so many women are working _ they are, and it's economic _ but because the quality of infant care in this country typically is not good," said Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a research group in New York.
Belsky, an investigator in the new national study, clarified his assertions about possible risks of early maternal work in a recent interview.
"I wasn't saying anything about the inevitable effects of day care," he said. "I was talking about care as we have it in this country."
Alison Clarke-Stewart, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, an investigator in the new study and a critic of Belsky's, said: "I do think it is important for an infant to form a close attachment with a parent. I'm less convinced a mother can't still do that when she works."
"I think it's pretty hard to do if you are working long hours every day," Dr. Clarke-Stewart added. "In the best of all worlds, everybody would have access to part-time work."