Mothers working, not the end of the world

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Hard-line conservatives take note. As reported in The Economist:

Contrary to these veiled aspersions, the study in question should reassure career-minded mothers. Conducted by researchers at University College London, it surveyed 19,000 British households to determine how parental employment affects a child’s behaviour throughout the first five years of life.

The results will startle those who think that children benefit from having a stay-at-home mum. In fact, the paper indicates that maternal employment can often improve the chances of having well-adjusted kids.

For example, five-year-olds whose mothers had been at home when they were babies were more likely to have behavioural problems than other children. For each child, the longer the time their mother was off work, the more bratty was the child’s behaviour. Housebound women were also far more likely to report symptoms of depression than their working counterparts, problems which can only make the process of childrearing more difficult.

Always remember to read the fine print though, and ‘working parents’ is often a mask in a study for income levels and other determinants of hardship, things that really matter when we’re talking about long-term outcomes for children.

Of course, life can rarely be boiled down to simple equations of cause and effect. What complicates this picture is the correlation between work patterns and other factors like lower household income, poorer education and depression, which might affect whether a woman chooses to go to work. Interestingly, when the study adjusted for these factors, the relationship between bad behaviour and maternal unemployment remained strong for girls but not for boys. This may reflect, the authors said, “the importance of gender in family role model processes”—the inference being that girls benefit from having a mother as an exemplar of a woman who is successful and independent, while the effect is less pronounced for boys.

The paper also looked at the working arrangements of all adults in the household—a sensible method, and a point of distinction with other studies that focused exclusively on what mothers do with their time. Once again, the trends differed by sex. Boys, but not girls, were likely to suffer from their mother being the sole breadwinner, although once the results were adjusted for income, education and depression, the detrimental impact on boys disappeared. Boys thrived equally in homes where both parents were working, and in two-parent “traditional” families in which their mothers stayed at home. Girls, in contrast, appeared to have significantly fewer problems where both parents were employed than in traditional homes.

The study raises more questions than answers, doesn’t it?

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, parenting, work and family

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2 replies

  1. The study raises more questions than answers, doesn’t it?

    It does indeed, and thank you for posting on it. (I wanted to comment last night, but my internet flaked out.)
    I’m not entirely surprised that what the parent of the same gender does has a stronger effect on girls than on boys.

  2. This is interesting.
    I’ve been talking with my partner the possibility of having kids sometime in the next 5 years, and am into the idea of equally shared parenting – which means equally shared breadwinning. It’s hard to find stuff to read about it – especially since in all likelihood he’ll be able to earn more than me, only I don’t want to be the only one to sacrifice my career – and there’s a possibility that I could be the one to end up earning more if I stay in my job long enough.

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