Most American moms work outside the home. Nearly 70 percent of women with children under age 18 were in the labor force in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In recent decades, as more mothers take paid positions, families, policymakers and scholars have wondered how the trend may impact children, especially during their early years. Many women, single parents in particular, must work because they either can’t afford to stay at home to raise their kids or the government agencies they rely on for assistance require them to be employed.
Work is also a choice for a lot of women. As more women in the United States complete college degrees — the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees skyrocketed between 1967 and 2015 — many have opted to leave their youngsters with a family member or daycare provider while they pursue careers and other professional interests.
Is this trend good or bad? Are kids with working moms different from kids whose moms are unemployed? Do they have more or fewer behavioral problems? Are their academic skills stronger or weaker? Let’s look at what the research says.
The good news: Overall, maternal employment seems to have a limited impact on children’s behavior and academic achievement over the short term. And there appear to be benefits in the long-term. A study published in 2018 finds that daughters raised by working moms are more likely to be employed as adults and have higher incomes.
Below, we’ve gathered a sampling of the academic research published or released on this topic in recent years. If you’re looking for workforce trend data, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, which offers a variety of reports on women at work. A May 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, “7 Facts about U.S. Moms,” provides some useful context.
“When Does Time Matter? Maternal Employment, Children’s Time With Parents, and Child Development”
Hsin, Amy; Felfe, Christina. Demography, October 2014. DOI: 10.1007/s13524-014-0334-5.
Do working moms spend less time with their children? And if they do, does that hurt kids’ cognitive development? Amy Hsin from Queens College-City University of New York and Christina Felfe of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland teamed up to investigate.
The gist of what they found: Mothers who work full-time do spend less time with their children, but they tend to trade quantity of time for better quality time. “On average, maternal work has no effect on time in activities that positively influence children’s development, but it reduces time in types of activities that may be detrimental to children’s development,” Hsin and Felfe explain. Each week, kids whose mothers work full-time spend 3.2 fewer hours engaged in “unstructured activities” — activities that don’t require children and parents to be actively engaged and speaking to one another — compared to kids whose moms are unemployed.
The researchers also find that children with college-educated mothers spend more time on educational activities as well as “structured” activities, which require kids to be actively engaged with their parents. “For example, college-educated mothers and their partners spend 4.9 hours and 2.5 hours per week, respectively, engaged in educational activities with their children; by comparison, mothers with less than [a] high school diploma and their partners spend only 3.3 hours and 1.7 hours per week in educational activities, respectively,” according to the study.
Maternal employment, generally speaking, appears to have a positive effect on children’s cognitive development. “When comparing the effect of maternal employment on child outcomes between stay-at-home mothers and mothers who work full-time, we see that the reduction in unstructured time resulting from full-time employment amounts to an improvement in children’s cognitive development of 0.03 to 0.04 SD [standard deviation],” the authors write. For children under age 6, the improvement is larger.
“Learning from Mum: Cross-National Evidence Linking Maternal Employment and Adult Children’s Outcomes”
McGinn, Kathleen L.; Castro, Mayra Ruiz; Lingo, Elizabeth Long. Work, Employment and Society, April 2018. DOI: 10.1177/0950017018760167.
These researchers analyzed data from two surveys conducted across 29 countries to examine how men and women had been influenced by their mother’s work status. The main takeaway: Daughters raised by working mothers are more likely to have jobs as adults — and those who have jobs are more likely to supervise others, work longer hours and earn higher incomes.
There doesn’t appear to be a link between maternal employment and employment for sons, according to the study. However, men whose mothers worked while they were growing up spend about 50 minutes more caring for family members each week than men whose moms didn’t work.
The study, led by Kathleen L. McGinn of Harvard Business School, notes that these outcomes are “due at least in part to employed mothers’ conveyance of egalitarian gender attitudes and life skills for managing employment and domestic responsibilities simultaneously. Family-of-origin social class matters: women’s likelihood of employment rises with maternal employment across the socio-economic spectrum, but higher incomes and supervisory responsibility accrue primarily to women raised by mothers with more education and higher skill jobs.”
“Increasing Maternal Employment Influences Child Overweight/Obesity Among Ethnically Diverse Families”
Ettinger, Anna K.; Riley, Anne W.; Price, Carmel E. Journal of Family Issues, July 2018. DOI: 10.1177/0192513X18760968.
This study looks at how maternal employment affects the weight status of Black and Latino children from low-income families in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. The researchers find that an increase in a mother’s “work intensity” — for example, when a mother transitions from being unemployed to working or switches from part-time to full-time work — increases the odds that her child will be overweight or obese.
Kids whose mothers increased their work schedules during the children’s first few years of life were more likely to have a weight problem. “Children of mothers who increased their employment status during children’s preschool years had over 2.6 times the odds of being overweight/obese at 7 to 11 years of age compared with children of nonworking mothers,” the authors write. They also write that their results “suggest that changing work schedules and increasing work hours over time may be more disruptive to family environments and child weight than maintaining constant levels of employment over time (whether that is not working at all or working full-time).”
The researchers note that within their sample of 602 children, having consistent family routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes were associated with a 61 percent reduction in the odds of being overweight or obese. They also note that youth whose parents live together, whether married or not, tended to have lower odds of being overweight or obese than children living with single mothers.
“The Effect of Maternal Employment on Children’s Academic Performance”
Dunifon, Rachel; Hansen, Anne Toft; Nicholson, Sean; Nielsen, Lisbeth Palmhøj. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 19364, August 2013.
Rachel Dunifon, the interim dean of Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, led this study, which explores whether maternal employment improves children’s academic achievement. Dunifon and her colleagues analyze a data set for 135,000 children who were born in Denmark between 1987 and 1992 and followed through the ninth grade.
A key finding: Danish children whose mothers worked during their childhood had higher grade-point averages at age 15 than children whose mothers did not work. And children whose mothers worked between 10 and 19 hours a week had better grades than kids whose mothers worked full-time or only a few hours per week. “The child of a woman who worked between 10 and 19 hours per week while her child was under the age of four is predicted to have a GPA that is 2.6 percent higher than an otherwise similar child whose mother did not work at all,” the authors write.
The researchers suggest their paper “presents evidence of a positive causal linkage between maternal work hours and the GPA of Danish teens. These associations are strongest when mothers work part-time, and among more advantaged mothers, and are not accounted for by mothers’ earnings.”
“Maternal Work Early in the Lives of Children and Its Distal Associations with Achievement and Behavior Problems: A Meta-Analysis”
Lucas-Thompson, Rachel G.; Goldberg, Wendy A.; Prause, JoAnn. Psychological Bulletin, November 2010. DOI: 10.1037/a0020875.
This is an analysis of 69 studies that, over the span of five decades, look at the relationship between maternal employment during children’s early years and children’s behavior and academic performance later in life. Overall, the analysis suggests that early maternal employment is not commonly associated with lower academic performance or behavior problems.
The analysis did, however, find differences when comparing different types of families. Early maternal employment was associated with “positive outcomes (i.e., increased achievement and decreased behavior problems) for majority one-parent samples,” explain the three researchers, Rachel G. Lucas-Thompson, now an assistant professor at Colorado State University, and Wendy A. Goldberg and JoAnn Prause of the University of California, Irvine. Early maternal employment was associated with lower achievement within two-parent families and increased behavior problems among study samples comprised of a mix of one- and two-parent families.
The researchers offer this explanation: “The results of this meta-analysis suggest that early maternal employment in sole-provider families may bolster children’s achievement and buffer against problem behaviors, perhaps because of the added financial security and health benefits that accompany employment, as well as improved food, clothing, and shelter because of increased income and the psychological importance of having a role model for achievement and responsible behavior. In contrast, early maternal employment may be detrimental for the behavior of children in two-parent families if the increases in family income do not offset the challenges introduced by maternal employment during children’s early years of life.”
There were differences based on household income as well. For families receiving welfare, the researchers found a link between maternal employment and increased student achievement. For middle- and upper-class families, maternal employment was associated with lower achievement.
The researchers note that they tried to gauge how child-care quality might influence these results. But there weren’t enough studies to allow for a detailed analysis.