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.