Working mothers tend to be happier and healthier than mothers who stay at home caring for young children, according to recent research. But many of those who work are often haunted by the question: “Am I screwing up my kids?”
A new study provides a reassuring answer. Writing in the journal Social Science Research, sociologists Jeremiah Wills and Jonathan Brauer conclude — with one important caveat — that “maternal employment largely is inconsequential to child well-being.”
They reached this conclusion after examining data on 6,283 American mothers and their children. The women have been surveyed every two years as part of a three-decade project sponsored by the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.
The researchers tracked the children’s well-being using a standard reading and pronunciation test, a mathematics test, and a “behavior problems index.” The index measured the kids’ levels of depression and anxiety as well as their tendency to get into conflicts with their peers. The mothers reported whether they worked outside the home, and if so, how many hours a week.
Wills and Brauer separated the children into groups based on when they’d been born: before 1980, 1980-84, 1984-89, 1990-94, and after 1994. Somewhat surprisingly, they discovered that for the children in the earlier cohorts, “having an employed mother was associated with higher cognitive development and lower behavior problem trajectories (ignoring all other factors).”
These benefits “largely disappeared as the arrangement became more commonplace,” they add. So the impact of mom’s employment — or lack thereof — is now negligible.
But the researchers add a cautionary note: 1-year-olds who don’t have full-time moms may not get the verbal stimulation they need. “Our results do suggest that maternal employment in the second year after birth is associated with lower average reading score trajectories,” they write. “Furthermore, children whose mothers work overtime, non-white children, children in low-income families, and children of non-married mothers appear to be especially affected by maternal employment during this stage of development.
“These results lend support to the notion of a critical period of development during the early years of children’s lives that is especially consequential for language skills,” they add. In the toughest cases — where no father is in the picture, and mom is too tired after a long day of work for much playtime with the child — the lack of verbal interaction may have negative long-term consequences.
While that’s an important issue, the study’s overall message is that the guilt felt by working mothers is largely unwarranted. “For the average child,” the researchers conclude, “negative outcomes associated with maternal employment are not an obstacle to overcome.”
So relax, mom. The dual roles of wage earner and good parent are not mutually exclusive — just exceptionally exhausting.