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Trying to make sense of nonsense
With International Women’s Day on the 8th, Mothers day on the 18th (if you are in the UK at least) and Women’s History Month for the entire duration of March, women have been the focus of a lot of news stories. A lot of these are positive, inspiring stories, others perhaps a bit unsettling, and others are stories we have heard many times before.
In that last category, working mothers are a favourite. News article reporting on the continuous stress of being a working mom, or the detrimental effects working moms have on their children’s development are plentiful. Most of these stories are based on a single, often misinterpreted study, or try to claim that it is common sense that children need their mothers to be bodily present in order for them to grow up normally. But do these claims hold up when we look at actual data?
In recognition of International Women’s Day, UCL dedicated one of its famous lunch hour lectures to the topic of working mothers (available to watch online here). Dr Anne McMunn elaborated on her research tracking mothers and children over time using two birth cohorts: one from 1958 whose children have grown up to be the working mothers of a generation, and the Millennium Cohort Study, whose children are under the auspices of working mothers today.
You might be forgiven for thinking that working mothers are a stressed out bunch. A quick Google Image search brings up plenty of pictures of multitasking moms faced with demanding toddlers, dishes, dodgy suitcases and corded phones. Meanwhile, a similar search on workings dads brings up an entirely different array of pictures (although the one does show a challenging combination of paternal multitasking).
Most of us seem to agree that the idea that it is impossible to combine motherhood with a career is as dated as the corded phones accompanying most articles on the subject. The second myth, that children are the ones who suffer from not having a stay-at-home mom, appears harder to beat.
It is obvious that having a working mom, as a breadwinner or as second working parent, has its benefits: she serves as a role model, and the extra cash a second working parent can bring in would certainly not be missed in times like these. The question is whether these benefits weigh up to the drawback of having less parent-child face time.
According to research by Dr McMunn, the benefits of being a working mom clearly outweigh the risks(1). Her team looked into the socio-emotional behaviour of just under 13,000 five-year old children in the Millennium Cohort Study. They compared children growing up in a dual-earner household, with those in other types of household, such as traditional household, households with a female breadwinner, unemployed households and lone mothers.
The socio-emotional behaviour the researchers were on the lookout for included behaviour such as hyperactivity and emotional symptoms. These behaviours would be the sort of problems you might expect if children really were at a disadvantage from having their moms go to work. When they compared the number of children displaying these sorts of behaviours between family types, taking other factors such as mother’s age, education, possible depression and household income into account, it became apparent that children of dual-earner parents were quite well off.
Even more so: the most beneficial working arrangement for both girls and boys was that in which both mothers and fathers were present in the household and in paid work. These results add to a growing body of work showing that having a mother with a paid job can only be a good thing (see for example: 2,3). The idea that having a working mom is bad for children appears to no more than a myth.
1. McMunn A, Kelly Y, Cable N, Bartley M. Maternal employment and child socio-emotional behaviour in the UK: longitudinal evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2011 Jan 10.
2. Cooksey E, Joshi H, Verropoulou G. Does mothers’ employment affect children’s development? Evidence from the children of the British 1970 Birth Cohort and the American NLSY79. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies. 2009.
3. Verropoulou G, Joshi H. Does mother’s employment conflict with child development? Multilevel analysis of British mothers born in 1958. Journal of Population Economics. 2009 Jul 1;22(3):665–92.