Working mothers not ruining children’s lives

The Observer reports:

“The good news is that we can see no adverse effects,” said American academic Jane Waldfogel, currently a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “This research is unique because the question we have always asked in the past has been: ‘If everything else remains constant, what is the effect of a mum going off to work?’ But of course everything else doesn’t stay constant, so it’s an artificial way of looking at things.

A good study, and I’m glad it’s getting press. Still, I think I would actually *pay* to see an article on this topic that also discusses pros and cons of fathers working.

3 thoughts on “Working mothers not ruining children’s lives

  1. If you read the actual report, it is far from convincing. Here’s three sample quotes.

    With regard to cognitive outcomes, first, we find that full-time (FT)
    maternal employment in the first 12 months of life (but not part-time [PT]
    employment) is associated with significantly lower scores on some, but not
    all, measures of cognitive development at age 3, at age 4.5, and in first grade for non-Hispanic White children but with no significant associations for the small sample of African-American children.

    mothers who worked FT by 12 months have significantly higher depressive
    symptom scores at each assessment point than those who did not work in
    the 1st year (with effect sizes ranging from .21 to .36). Mothers who worked
    PT by the 12th month fare slightly better.

    The strongest evidence concerns the links that are observed
    between FT maternal employment in the 1st year and two mediators:
    higher maternal earnings, which we would expect to be beneficial for
    child development, but also higher maternal depression scores, which
    might be detrimental.

    I don’t have time to read the whole report in detail, but it seems:
    a) there are clear negative effects
    b) there are some countervailing positive effects. For instance the authors think that having more money will have a positive effect, which will counteract various negative effects caused by the employment. So if you have a well earning partner this positive effect will be pretty much redundant, so you will only have negative effects of employment. In reality, how strong the positive of having more money will be will depend both on your general financial situation, and your character. Some people get by perfectly well on very little money.
    C) They use pretty coarse measures of child wellbeing.

    So it is far from clear that your child will flourish as well if it is looked after by someone else.

    I guess this might be an area where generalisations cannot be made. What the best policy is for the child depends on how good the parents are with child – for instance, how good at playing with the child, stimulating the child, setting a good example, etc; and how good the available childcare would be. If the childcare would do a better job than you, then go for it. If not, well if you give priority to you child then your work must take a back seat…

    p.s. On your last comment about studies needed on the influence of fathers working (and presumably, whether it makes any difference whether a mother or father stays at home) – couldn’t agree more…

  2. ps Clearly there are other important issues in addition to those I mention. For instance, if a child spends a lot of time with a nanny for a couple of years, and so naturally loves him/her, but then the nanny disappears (moves away, gets another job etc) then is this harmful for the child? Intuition says yes.

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