Balancing work and family is a challenge for all parents. Mothers often feel especially guilty about leaving their child in someone else’s care in order to provide income for the family. In the United States, 80% of mothers go back to work at some point during the child’s first year of life, and 75% of these mothers work full time. A study was recently published in the Monographs of the Society for Research and Development on the consequences of having a working mother for children’s development. The study used data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development‘s Study of Early Child Care. In this study, 1,364 children were followed from birth through first grade. Researchers looked at the effects of mothers’ employment during the first year of the children’s lives on the children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.
The results of the study indicate that overall, full time employment during the child’s first year of life does not affect children’s development when compared to the children of mothers who do not work, and part time employment even has some beneficial effects. Previous studies have indicated that when a mother works full time this is associated with their children having somewhat lower scores on tests that measure cognitive skills. However, this study shows that mothers’ employment is also associated with several positive things including: more financial stability, greater sensitivity of mothers when children are 4.5 years old, and higher quality childcare. These three factors are actually related to better cognitive development in children. Taken together it turns out that mothers’ full time employment has no effect on children’s cognitive development compared to mothers who are at home full time.
Whereas the effect of mothers’ full time work is neutral compared to mothers who do not work outside the home, the effect of part time work turns out to be positive. Mothers who work part time had greater sensitivity, and the home environment of families where the mother worked part time was rated more positively. Mothers’ employment (whether full time, part time, or no employment) had no effect on children’s social-emotional development. There was also no evidence in the data of this study that mothers’ employment had any effect on the quality of bonding and the relationship between the mother and child (in technical terms: attachment).
Overall, what the results of this study suggests, is that mothers do not have to feel guilty about working outside the home during a child’s first year of life. The benefits of working (more financial stability, higher sensitivity to the needs of your child, access to higher quality childcare) generally outweigh potential risks. Therefore, children who have a working mother are generally just as well off as children who have a mother who is able to stay home full time. Unfortunately, this particular study did not provide any information about the role fathers played. However, there are several other studies that did look at the role fathers play in the development of their children.
In the whole discussion about the work-family balance, fathers are often ignored. For decades, research about parenting has focused almost exclusively on mothers. The role of fathers was assumed to be inferior or very similar to that of mothers. Over the past two decades, however, interest in the role of fathers has been increasing. There is now a growing body of research on the unique role fathers play in the lives and development of their children. Turns out, the role of fathers is pretty important, and just as important as the role of mothers.
Fathers have a unique influence on the development of their children that is different from the influence of mothers. While fathers respond just as sensitively to the needs of their children as mothers, the way fathers play and interact with their children is different from mothers. When fathers are actively involved with their children and play with them, this has beneficial effects for their children’s social skills. Children who have close and positive relationships with their fathers also have greater confidence and self-esteem and generally do better in school and on cognitive tests. If I go into more detail about research on the role of involved fathers in the development of their children, this blog would become way too long, but I promise more on this topic in the future.
Balancing the needs of work and family is a challenge that all parents face. Whatever situation is right for your family, whether both parents work, or one can stay home full time, it is important that both parents are actively involved with the care for their children.