One of the great gifts of my life is an educated mother. Lucky for me, even though my mother has a college degree, she chose — with my father’s support — to be home throughout my childhood.

It may seem a small thing, but there is something that happens in those early years of rapid development as young minds are exploring and beginning to understand the world. It's a stage of connecting, of first perceptions, of significant brain development. It's a time when nurturing and a sense of security create a strong foundation for future learning. If a sense of security is developed, one doesn't have to fight so hard to make life good. It just is.

It recently hit me that this is part of our magic in Utah.

No wonder it’s commonly stated that Utah’s education system has performed better than would be expected for its level of funding (Utah Foundation 2010). We have had a relatively high percentage of mothers at home who send children to kindergarten knowing the alphabet, reading, recognizing numbers, having some appetite for learning and with the benefit of a supportive home environment. Such children start life on the fast track.

It’s disheartening to see a child who starts kindergarten and is surprised the first day when the teacher holds up a card with some strange figure on it, and asks, “Class, what is this?” A child next to him (probably me) shouts out, “A!” and the child thinks, “How did she know that?” After the pattern has been repeated a few times with e, i, o, and u, this child is thinking, “Wow, she’s smart. How come I didn’t know that?”

Many accept the explanation that somehow they’re not as smart, maybe even dumb. When, in reality, it may just be that I had a mother who taught me, and she could because she had lots of time at home with me. Somehow that sets the course for much of our respective school experiences.

So, why did my mother teach me to read when I was small? It wasn't just about the economic value of the skill, though that has been helpful. She and my father both loved learning.

It’s hard not to pick up an interest in learning when you’re a child in such a home. It’s just simply part of your everyday life. But I suppose if my mother had been at work, I might not have picked up her ways. I would have seen her when it was time for dinner and time to be tucked into bed. She probably would have read me a book, but she would have been tired, and we might not have had the conversations we had throughout the day that shaped my world.

She could have told me how important an education was, but it would have just been another thing my mother told me rather than a contagious love of learning that filled our days as we sought out new adventures, good books, solved problems, and tried to figure out how things work. It would have been added to the list of “my mother said,” a category that lacks the power of example and what my mother did. It’s what she did that most shaped the woman I am and what I love — not least of all her love of being a mother.

As a working woman who looks forward to motherhood but has found children more of a miracle than expected, I often think when I come home exhausted from a day of having given everything and hear all the children in my university married student apartment complex laughing, talking (and not infrequently crying), “How could I possibly give my best to my children when I come home after a long day, rushed to make dinner, perhaps squeeze in one more thing, and then fall into bed?”

I salute women who choose to be home to nurture their children, and I salute husbands who encourage and make it possible – especially in an era of so many options.

I realize not all have circumstances that allow it and that many women will work during a season of their lives when their children are growing for a variety of reasons, making those years together all the more precious. I respect the devotion, energy, and courage of women who help care for their families in less ideal circumstances. My grandmother was one of them. She lost her husband early due to heart disease. I imagine this caused my mother to value education all the more as she saw her mother care for a young family without the advantages of higher education.

Yet, I suppose that makes me all the more grateful that my mother stayed home when she acquired her college degree. There are so many incentives to go from a degree to the workplace — not the least of which is financial. Certainly a young family, saving to buy a home, sacrificing and struggling to pay for both his and her education would see value in dual income to help them get on top. And there are so many things to give your children. And yet somehow, many Utah families find a way to have mothers at home, at least part of the time. Nationally, Utah consistently has the lowest percentage of families with children under age 6 with both parents working (American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2005-2009).

As a professional now working to strengthen education, I marvel at the impact of these mothers. With stretched state budgets and a variety of needs in schools, it wouldn’t surprise me if these mothers are one of the reasons our children have done as well as they have. Way to go moms!

As our demographics change and we have fewer of these mothers at home (U.S. Department of Labor 2011 and U.S. Census 2010), we find Utah lagging peer states in reading, science and math (Utah Foundation 2010). Coincidence? Maybe.

When I reflect on the best things in my life, the things that have made life fundamentally good, I think of an educated mother, particularly one who stayed home with us. It was a big choice on my parents’ part. It has affected my life as few other factors have.

I realize it’s rare. I wish it for more children.

I honor women who work hard to acquire higher education and then make that choice to be home with their children, especially in a world that offers so many attractive alternatives.

Our lives and our community are better for it. We have much to thank them for.

Jana Scott is a member of the Utah Women's College Task Force.