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Work keeps mums happy and children well-adjusted

Conservative commentary often attempts to reinstate the primacy of stay-at-home motherhood, prompting feelings of guilt among working mothers. But a recent study might help to finally lay this issue to…

It’s the quality, not quantity, of the time spent with children that counts most. Sean drillinger

Conservative commentary often attempts to reinstate the primacy of stay-at-home motherhood, prompting feelings of guilt among working mothers. But a recent study might help to finally lay this issue to rest – it shows working mothers are happier and healthier than stay-at-home mums.

The study, published in the US Journal of Family Psychology, found mothers who worked part time were generally in a happier frame of mind and were better able to manage their daily family issues than mothers who worked full time or stayed at home.

While the study showed no significant differences in how these women parent or maintain fulfilling partnerships, it found that mothers' part-time work impacted positively on family life.

Perhaps the most significant conclusion was that even mothers' full time hours did not have the negative impact on a family many would expect.

This shouldn’t be seen as a poor reflection of women who stay at home full time: mothers should be able to choose whether or not they work outside of the home according to what they feel is right for them and their family. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Healthy attachments

What’s exciting about this report is it turns on its head the idea that a family is only well served if mothers stay at home. It shows that it’s the quality of the time spent with children, not the quantity, that counts most for their healthy development.

In this sense, the findings reinforce past research on attachment theory which spans the disciplines of psychology, education, medicine and social science. According to this theory, children form healthy attachments to their parents when they spend quality time with mum and dad, who play with them, work with them and can generally “be” with them.

Children want to be able to explore and play. Optische Taeuschung

Historically, the negative focus on mothers who work has stemmed from a misunderstanding of early attachment research in the late 1960s that focused on maternal deprivation and its effects on the mother-child bond. British psychologist John Bowlby was concerned that a child’s separation from their mother would impact on their bond, but this theory was never meant to infer that children of mothers working full time would be adversely affected.

More recent longitudinal studies in the United States and Australia paint a different picture about parent-child attachment. We’re beginning to understand that secure attachments occur when a parent gives a child a safe haven to return to while they are out exploring their world. This means that it’s quite permissible for parents to let their children explore and play.

Children just want to be able to “check in” with a trusted adult. And that trusted adult does not have to be a mother – it can be a father, grandparent or child-care educator. All of the love and care a child receives is not the only primary responsibility of a mother.

Finally, modern attachment theory deals with notions of resilience and repair. If difficulties arise in the mother-child relationship, they can generally be resolved. A parent might make mistakes such as being impatient or snapping at a child, but this does not mean that the parent-child relationship will be forever harmed.

Family well-being is more likely when everyone in the family feels fulfilled. Mothers should not have to shoulder full responsibility for very young children. This can be a shared experience – between mothers, fathers, grandparents and carers/educators. After all, that’s what family and community is about.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “But a recent study”

    There are 100’s of social science studies produced in the US each year, most of which have conflicting results, so why was this one chosen?

    And why was a study not conducted in Australia, but instead, a study chosen from the US, where 1 in 6 are currently on food stamps?

    Disregarding what the author wants or advocates, I sense a sales pitch with this article, and a sales pitch is not science.

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  2. Kym Macfarlane

    Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University

    There are many recent studies in the US every year and there are studies in Australia. Thus, a prominent US study was chosen and a prominent longitudinal current Australian study was also chosen. There is much science around the notions of repair and resilience in attachments studies. Prominent Australian attachment researcher Sharne Rolfe speaks to both these aspects of the theory. Perhaps check out her book "Rethinking attachment" which delves more deeply into the science than this article could. I hope that helps.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Kym Macfarlane

      I am aware of the HILDA survey, but here is a website that lists 1000’s of “but new research shows” type articles released in the US.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/mind_brain/child_development/

      About 100 “but new research shows” type articles would be released each day on that website alone.

      The public is faced with the dilemma of deciding what is reliable, what has been selectively picked out to suit a current trend or ideology, what is advocacy research, what has a hidden agenda, what…

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Kym Macfarlane

      I had a look at the research paper, and it seemed to concentrate most on the mother, and not that much on the child, and the father was hardly mentioned at all, but that does seem to be the trend in most current social science studies.

      The research paper also seemed to recommend part time work for mothers. There are possible long term disadvantages to that, and there are economists now in the US who believe too much outsourcing by companies, and too much part time work, and too few full time jobs, is one of the reasons why they can’t kick-start the economy and get the economy going again.

      There is more too it than some ideology of more day-care centers paid for by the taxpayer.

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  3. Kym Macfarlane

    Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University

    Yes Dale there are many studies. Heaps in fact. This is why it is important to look for prominent studies like the Minnesota study and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Also it is important to remember that early childhood crosses research boundaries so studies will be in health, medicine and in early childhood education and care. The research is endless - but all attachment theory research speaks of resilience and repair, the concepts mentioned in the article. All research refers to the fact that relationships can be repaired, that children need a safe haven to return to and that resilience plays a role in the attachment relationship.

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  4. Kym Macfarlane

    Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University

    I think if you read some of the studies around women in the workforce you will see that working women add strength to an economy rather than detratcting from it. However, this is not my field of expertise. I can say that James Heckman's work indicates that government investment in early childhood saves money down the track and so makes good economic sense. High quality day care benefits young children and families on the whole. It is lack of investment in early childhood and families that can eventually lead to disadvantage and pressure on the economy. Tax payer dollars are well spent on the care and education of young children.

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  5. Lucy Montgomery

    Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

    As a young female academic - and a working mum - who has spent most of the past five years living in the UK, I was really shocked by the tone of the debate on working mothers that I bumped into when I returned to Australia to take up a fellowship. The fact that the statement "a family is only well served if a mother stays at home" needs challenging in 2012 says it all, really.

    The majority of Australia's university graduates are women and close to half of the Australian workforce is female…

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  6. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    I can sypathise with some of Dale's points and the way much social science is gender (i.e. feminist) tilted. I would expect that the analyses in these longitudinal studies does include measures of the father's attachment, socioeconomic status (employed, level, hours worked, education) and other potential confounders including geographic location, religious attendance. and very importantly quality of child care centres. Certainly studies have shown that there is an interaction between age the child…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      Hi Matt,
      For complete absurdity, why not the US research paper mentioned in the article.The researchers want more part time work for mothers, and more taxpayer funded day-care centers, in a country with $15 trillion of debt and rising.

      There are 45 million people on food stamps, and even part time work is very difficult to find, and may not pay more than $5.00 per hour. Over 100 cities and towns are near bankruptcy, because so many residents cannot afford to pay their rates, and freeways and roads are being closed because authorities cannot afford to maintain them.

      Then the researchers conclude that the taxpayer should fund more day-care centers so mothers can work at part time jobs, because it may (and it is not all that conclusive) increase their level of happiness.

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  7. Susan McCosker

    Former school teacher

    Such a complex and emotive issue. I've been out of the workforce for over five years now caring for children full-time because that's what we felt best for our kids.

    I would love to read something of the converse: studies into the benefit of a parent staying home with their children. Everything I've seen reported is about how it's good for the mother to work part time, with the insinuation that I'm wasting my time, money, energy, education, and being a burden on the economy and an embarrassment…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      Susan,
      You say there is an “insinuation that I'm wasting my time, money, energy, education, and being a burden on the economy and an embarrassment to feminism by taking time out from work”

      Who is making that insinuation, or is it imagined?

      The HILDA survey does show many women prefer part time work to about 20 hours per week, and this occurs for women with no dependant children.

      But there is an economic theory developing that too much part time work is not good for a national economy in…

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    2. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I don't know if it is imagined or not, which is why I said it is that it is the emotional defence of the mother speaking. But when I keep reading about how there is no detriment to the children by mothers returning to work, it seems like I'm being told there is no point in me being home full time. I'd like some balance, to hear that actually there are some benefits to having a parent available full-time.

      I'm tired of hearing about the 'working mother/stay-at-home mother' dichotomy in popular…

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      Hi Susan,
      I don’t read popular media anymore, stopped that after so many junk articles such as “Marcia Gay Hardon to divorce” (whoever she is) that run alongside “The rules of attraction” (whatever they are).

      Its just junk media, and frankly this article has a certain spin to it that I find suspicious, and I find the so-called research study in the US this article references is also highly suspicious, when the economic situation in the US is considered.

      If you want part time work, then that is very common amongst women according to the HILD survey. The problem is how to arrange part time work, and how to fund a probable increase in required day care centres, and how to ensure the economy does not decline from too much part time work, and not enough full time work.

      Easy when economies are functioning well, but unfortunately so many economies throughout the world are almost bankrupt, with very high social welfare bills to pay.

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    4. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Yes, I tend to avoid popular media for the same reasons, but sadly, it's not entirely avoidable.

      I think part of the problem is that work and home are so separate, and we are so individualistic. We often travel long distances to get to work, and family business are not as common as they were in the past. Extended family is often spread across town, or across the country, or busy with their own work. We often don't even know our neighbours, and probably aren't home long enough to really ever see them. Work is usually somewhere you GO. Can we think about restructuring the system so that work is more local, and the childcare can be shared in a local community, rather than trying to fit a round peg of work into the square hole of family?

      Does permanent part time compared to casual part time work make a difference economically?

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      Hi Susan,
      "Does permanent part time compared to casual part time work make a difference economically?"

      Possibly.

      There is an economic theory that too much part time work is bad for an economy in the medium to longer term.

      This theory is still in its infancy, but is being held by some economist now in the US where many companies began outsourcing jobs and employing lots of part time workers. This often boosted profits for a company in the short term, but the wages of the part time workers…

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  8. Kym Macfarlane

    Senior Lecturer, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University

    Hi everyone, Susan - I think it is important to acknowledge that working or staying at home is a choice that should me made individually As a mother of five I worked some of the time and stayed home some of the time during different periods. The decision to work was usually driven by financial considerations. When I was raising my children women were criticised for working. Now it seems women can be criticised for working and staying at home. My daughter has a daughter of her own now and she would…

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  9. Stayathome Moms

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