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Balancing work and family after childbirth: A longitudinal analysis

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Workforce participation by women with young children has been steadily increasing since the 1970s: According to an analysis by the Families and Work Institute, in 1974, 47% of women with children under 18 participated in the labor force, and by 2007 this figure had increased to 71%. Despite this significant shift, there have been few studies on how working while caring for young children affects women’s health.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Women’s Health Issues, “Balancing Work and Family After Childbirth: A Longitudinal Analysis,” used a sample of 541 working mothers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to measure the relationship between women’s health after childbirth and work-family conflicts. The researchers, from the University of Minnesota and the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, measured work-family conflict by looking at situations where the responsibilities of different domains come into conflict.

The study’s findings include:

  • By 11 weeks after childbirth, 53% of the women returned to work; by six months, almost all the women were back at work (all in the survey sample had worked in the year preceding childbirth.)
  • Women experienced job spillover into the home more frequently than home spillover into work.
  • Lower mental health scores were associated with both high levels of job spillover into home and medium-to-high levels of home spillover into work.
  • No association was found between job spillover into the home and physical health. Medium-to-high levels of home spillover into the workplace were actually associated with “slightly improved physical health when compared with women reporting low levels of home spillover.”
  • There was “a positive relationship between health and total hours worked, with each additional hour of work being associated with a slight increase in both mental and physical health.”
  • A positive association was found between women’s mental health scores and both social support from co-workers and positive feedback from family members about the way a woman “balanced both work and family.”
  • There was an inverse relationship between work flexibility and job spillover, with more flexible work arrangements not increasing the amount of time a woman is able to spend with her child.
  • Longer periods of work leave for childbirth were associated with a longer duration of breastfeeding.

The researchers note that some of the findings — in particular that more working hours were associated with better health for women and that more flexible working arrangements may not always benefit a woman’s health — call into question standard assumptions about women and work. Indeed, the study notes that “women who felt it was relatively easy to take work home also experienced worse mental health than women who found bringing work home difficult. Women who found it easy to change their work hours also worked more hours and more frequently worked in professional jobs.”

Tags: women and work, children

    Writer: | Last updated: March 30, 2013

    Citation: Grice, M.M.; McGovern, P.M.; Alexander, B.H.; Ukestad, L.; Hellerstedt, W. "Balancing Work and Family After Childbirth: A Longitudinal Analysis." Womens Health Issues, January-February 2011, Vol. 21, No. 1. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2010.08.003.

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    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled “Balancing Work and Family After Childbirth: A Longitudinal Analysis.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the issue-related New York Times column titled "Don't Quit This Day Job."

    1. What key insights from the study and column should reporters be aware of as they cover and explore issues relating to working women?