Good news for working mums

Working mums have had their fair share of bad press. Take the 2002 report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research that concluded “There is a negative and significant effect of the mother’s full-time employment when the child was aged 0-5, on the child’s educational attainment as a young adult”. This spawned headlines like “Working mums ‘bad for children'” in the Guardian and other papers.

But now there’s some good news. An American study involving 1,053 families has found that controlling for a host of other maternal characteristics, a mother’s time at work does not have a detrimental effect on her infant’s social behaviour or cognitive performance as measured between the ages of 15 to 36 months.

Aletha Huston and Stacey Aronson at the University of Texas twice rang up the mothers in their sample and asked them to recall what they had been doing each hour for the last 24 hours. They also visited the mothers’ homes to watch how they interacted with their children and to measure the children’s behaviour and cognitive development.

The researchers found that the 580 working mums did spend less time with their children than the non-working mums but the difference was far less than might be expected based on their working hours. That’s because working mothers tended to compensate by sacrificing other activities, like housework or socialising, and by spending more time with their children at weekends than non-working mothers. Moreover, the quality of interaction working mothers had with their child tended to be superior – involving more social interaction – playing, talking and holding their infants. Their home environments were also rated as slightly higher quality than non-working mothers’.

“The economic and social benefits of maternal employment outweigh any losses that may result from the time spent away from the child”, Huston and Aronson concluded.

Huston, A.C. & Aronson, S.R. (2005). Mothers’ time with infant and time in employment as predictors of mother-child relationships and children’s early development. Child Development, 76, 467-482.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.