The question of whether mothers should work or stay at home in their children’s early years has always been a hot potato in the media, provoking strong emotions and headlines including: Sorry working moms, daycare is bad for your kid or The case for working mothers: your kids will be just fine.
The possible benefits and risks of mothers’ working on children’s well-being is highly politicised and is the perennial subject of heated scientific and public debate. As policies designed to bring mothers into the workforce are on the increase – and pressure on women from all sides continues to mount – it is important to know how the children of working mothers are actually faring.
Whether mothers decide to stay at home or go back to work after they’ve given birth, how old their child is when they decide to return to work and how many hours they are working are all important factors in the developmental environment.
By bringing in money and raising the overall family income, working mothers may be able to provide a more stimulating and safer environment for their children. This isn’t just a matter of more expensive toys or learning material but also better living conditions, better nutrition and reduced family stress.
However, long working hours and work-related stress could have an impact on the quality and quantity of interactions mothers can have with their children – interactions that are crucial for developing cognitive skills and language growth.
A dynamic perspective
In our recent study – published in the journal Child Development – we looked at 2,200 children of the Growing Up in Scotland study, who were born in 2005/2006 and were followed from roughly 10 months old until around their fifth birthday. The mothers’ employment history and other family characteristics were collected through yearly surveys throughout the first five years of the child’s life.
As a measure of their vocabulary at the age of five, children were asked to name objects from a picture booklet. Reasoning ability at age five was established by asking children to find similarities between a given image and objects displayed in a picture book.
Unlike most previous research which measured women’s employment at a particular time, for example when their child was a year old, our study captured maternal employment throughout their child’s first five years and the effect this had on the child’s development.
We found that a mother’s employment history doesn’t have a positive or negative impact (see page 22) on a child’s reasoning ability or vocabulary at five years old. The reason for this is that children’s cognitive and language skills are shaped by individual traits and environmental conditions that can change many times throughout childhood. Therefore, development and well-being at a certain age are the result of children’s cumulative experiences over their first few years, not simply a result of a single snapshot moment.
Given that circumstances can change many times over – with mothers going in and out of employment or changes in pay, working hours and conditions – the constantly evolving nature of child development is important to consider when it comes to measuring any effect.
Any impact of a mother’s employment on children’s cognitive skills and language growth, via family income or parent-child interactions, is likely to unfold only if mothers continue to be employed for a longer period of time. Long-term stability in any status may also help families to develop strategies that work for their specific child, whereas frequent changes may be harmful in establishing a routine that works.
Our study advances the existing research by measuring both the complexity of mothers’ work history and their typical employment patterns – distinguishing between full-time employed, part-time employed, or not working, in each year.
Women making it work
We did find small differences (see page 22) in cognitive ability and vocabulary growth between children whose mothers followed different employment patterns. But for the most part, these differences seem to be driven by other characteristics, such as mothers’ education or the number of siblings, which influence a mother’s decision to work in the first five years after birth.
In other words, children with similar family characteristics develop comparable cognitive and vocabulary abilities even if their mothers’ work histories differ vastly in the first five years after birth.
Both the exaggerated claims of benefits and the harmful effects of working mothers on their children are not supported by our research, at least when it comes to early language acquisition and reasoning ability. We found that mothers manage to combine their careers with careful consideration of their children’s development – and that being in employment itself is not a major driver of differences in children’s outcomes.
From a policy perspective, these results support the role of initiatives that aim to raise the rates of mothers in work, such as the plan to increase provision of free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours by 2020 in Scotland.
All policies that enable women to choose whether they go back into work or not should be encouraged. However, it’s the ability to make choices that work for the individual that matter – pressure on women one way or the other is not going to improve the development of their children.