Are Children at a Disadvantage When Mothers Return to Work?

Compared to previous generations, mothers today are more likely to return to work after having children. Many women have spent a significant number of years in school and in the workforce building a career and are not willing to give that up to stay at home with children. Financial reasons also play a role, with many families today requiring two incomes to get by. But what is the effect on children when mothers return to work?

A recent study published in Child Development (McPerran Lombardi & Levine Coley, 2017) used data from Australia and the United Kingdom to look at mothers’ return to work within the two years following childbirth and children’s behavioural and academic skills in the first grade. 

The authors found that once they controlled for a number of characteristics that differed between working and non-working mums (including income and family structure) there were no differences (or minimal differences) in the behavioural and academic skills of children. In other words, there was no disadvantage for children whose mothers returned to work before they turned 2.

However, time spent away from parenting was an important consideration. Full time employment was associated with more conduct problems and lower prosocial behaviour, while part time employment had the reverse association (better behavioural functioning).

Overall these results are positive – they show that our changing societal norms are not negatively affecting children’s behavioural and academic skills. Research in the 1980s and early 1990s found a negative impact of maternal employment for children, so the research by McPerran Lombardi and Levine Coley suggests that this disadvantage may no longer exist. The change over time could be because of increased quality and availability of child care and increased involvement of fathers in caring for children.

The fact that a disadvantage was still found for mothers working full time indicates the importance of employers supporting mothers returning to work in a way that fits with their family life. Working part time, working from home, or working flexible hours are all ways that mothers can balance employment with parenting in order to maximise the time spent with their children.

16 thoughts on “Are Children at a Disadvantage When Mothers Return to Work?

  1. While some prefers to raise their kids by themselves, some still have to work because nowadays its all about the money. We can no longer rely on the husband as he sole breadwinner

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  2. I am a working mom and I can feel the guilt every time I would go and report to work leaving my child at home with my mother. It’s difficult to give up my job when my financial status isn’t that stable yet. In God’s time, hopefully I can afford to find a job that does not require me to be away from my son
    😘👶👶

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  3. This is super interesting. I worked FT for my first 6ish years of motherhood, PT for 1 1/2, and now I’ve been freelancing at home for about a year. It’s definitely had a financial impact, but it’s also saved my sanity. As far as the kids go? I was pretty sure they’d be fine no matter what. Working motherhood can be done well, or it can be done poorly. The same is true of stay-at-home motherhood. We’re all just doing our best!

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  4. “Overall these results are positive – they show that our changing societal norms are not negatively affecting children’s behavioural and academic skills.”

    I thought the results were interesting… I would be interested in learning more about the factors/controls that were investigated. For example, parenting roles/beliefs/structure in the working moms vs part time working moms. I agree however, the results are positive. Good post!

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    • This is such a great point. They controlled for socioeconomic/demographic factors and looked at time and money as mediating factors – but they did not look at any type of cognitions (like parenting beliefs) as mediating factors. I would say it is quite likely there would be factors related to parenting cognitions that differ between mothers who choose to return to full time versus part time work (when they are able to make the choice)

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      • Yeah, perhaps it’s my mental health professional side taking over, or maybe I just don’t want to believe it lol – either way, our parenting approaches play a large role in the development and behavioral outcomes of our children too. If you have a parent working FT but is also disconnected when they are present… that opens the door for an entirely new study if you ask me.

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  5. Loved this post. We just made a decision, as a family, for me to not go back to work. It was a struggle to try and find affordable and reliable child care and the amount of stress going into finding that type of solution just wasn’t worth it to us. I am thankful that I get to stay at home with my son, but it is reassuring to know that if I did end up going back part time that it wouldn’t affect my son too much.

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  6. I find that as a teacher, I am often not supported when it comes to mothering my own children. For instance, I paid out nearly $300 per day for my maternity leave. Yes, I got to take a leave of up to 12 weeks but it came at a heavy price. Also, although my school encourages parents to come to our school events, I am rarely allowed to leave work to attend day care events for my own children. But I am happy to be an example of a professional for my daughters. ☺️

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    • That’s ridiculous, you should be getting paid to take maternity leave not the other way around! It seems so backwards, especially as you say when working as a teacher. But you are right, there are certainly advantages such as setting a good example for your daughters.

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    • I worked at a school that did allow us to dash off to our children’s events. I wonder if you might be able to do a little school shopping? I bet there’s a place that would better meet your needs!

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  7. I have worked full-time and part-time. I’ve had jobs that fit my children’s school schedules and ones that didn’t. I think the ideal is to work part-time or with some flexibility. When I’m too consumed with work – and when my schedule gets too frantic, I notice that my kids, who are now in middle school, are out of sorts, too. You are so right: employers really need to be more responsive to the needs of a changing society.

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