Having both parents work has become the norm in America. Today, nearly half of American mothers work full time, an increase from less than 30 percent in 1979. More than 70 percent of mothers with young children are in the labor force. About half of today’s families are headed by two working parents.
But even if having both parents go to work has become standard for American children, are we comfortable with it? A third of Americans think that mothers who don’t work are best for their children, while just 16 percent say a mother who works full time is best.
“American attitudes toward working mothers have been relatively consistent over a long period of time, the idea being that working mothers are essentially bad for children,” Judith Warner, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), said. “We’ve stuck to the moralistic storyline about working mothers despite the lack of evidence.”
Working mothers all on their own aren’t hurting children’s development. So why does the stereotype persist?
First of all, it’s hard to answer the question, “Are working mothers bad for their children?” given all of the variables that impact child development. “These studies are complicated because you can’t actually do a real experiment,” Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director for women’s economic policy at CAP, said. “It’s always caught up in the hidden variables, how much is correlation and how much is causation.”
Studies have consistently found that women’s work itself doesn’t hurt their children’s development, starting in the 1950s. As Warner writes in her book Perfect Madness, an eight-year study in 1955 “found no significant differences in school performance, psychosomatic symptoms, or closeness to their mothers” between children of working and nonworking mothers. A study in the mid-1970s that controlled for some factors like family life, daycare quality, class, and ethnicity found that “there were no significant differences in intelligence, language, social skills, or attachment” between kids cared for by mothers or daycare workers. The same was found in 1988 and again in 1996.
Similarly, a 2010 review of 50 years of research found that children whose mothers worked before they reached age three didn’t have worse academic or behavior problems later in life than those with stay-at-home moms. There were even some positive benefits: toddlers with working moms grew up to have fewer problems with depression or anxiety and got better marks from teachers. Another large review of hundreds of studies found that “you can’t say very much about how a child will turn out simply because that child has an employed mother,” Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute and one of the researchers doing the literature review, said.
Just ask the children themselves. In the 90s, Galinsky conducted a survey of a nationally representative group of children ages eight to 18 with working parents (published in her book Ask the Children). They were asked what their one wish would be to change the way their parents’ work affected their lives. While most of the parents assumed children would want more time with them, that wasn’t at the top of the list. First was that their parents would be less tired or stressed. Number two was that their parents would earn more money, and only after that did getting more time together rank. In fact, kids were more likely to want more time with their fathers than with their mothers.
There was also an open-ended question on the survey, and “very, very few of the kids wrote in that they wanted their parents to stay home,” Galinsky said. “They assumed that their parents were actually taking care of their families by working, because they knew what they had was the result of often having two parents in the workforce.”
Galinksy also asked children to rate their mothers’ and fathers’ parenting abilities. “What we found was there was no difference between the way children who had employed mothers and didn’t have employed mothers rated parents,” she said. “That was a surprise.” Particularly interesting was that the working moms were rated just as well on some time-consuming needs: caring for kids when they were sick, going to their important events, and spending time talking with them, among others.
The lack of differences may stem from the fact that children indeed get just as much time from working mothers. According to time use research, “mothers in particular cut back on their own sleep and leisure to preserve time with their kids,” said Ariel Kalil, a professor at the University of Chicago. “So that in fact kids don’t actually suffer as big of a time loss with mothers” who work. The employed mothers of 2000 spent as much time caring for their children as the stay-at-home mothers of 1975.
Other variables matter much more to children’s development than whether mom has a job. A family’s income and resources makes a huge difference. “The best thing you can do for your kid is be rich,” Glynn remarked.
In a recent report for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth (WCEG), researchers gathered evidence that low-income children do worse because they are poor. One study found that a $1,000 increase in parents’ annual income boosts young children’s academic achievement by 5 to 6 percent .And working mothers are, of course, bringing in income. This is particularly important for low-income families.
“For some families, mom working makes the difference between whether there’s food on the table or they’re homeless,” said Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the WCEG. “What matters isn’t what mom is doing. What matters is, does that family have the supports that they need to make sure children are getting the education and care that they need to develop their human potential?”
In fact, the problem for low-income mothers is often not whether or not to work, but can they get enough to get by. “The problem for low-income families is not having enough work, not having sufficient hours, not having regular hours, and a lot of turnover in employment status,” Kalil said. That creates “quite a bit of instability,” such as changing housing if mom loses her job and they lose their apartment or new childcare arrangements if mom can’t afford to pay for the same person to watch her children. “We know that instability is really bad for children’s development,” she added.
On the other hand, well-off children with stay-at-home moms may not just be benefitting from their moms being home. “Obviously kids from a family with a stay-at-home mom where the mom stays at home because she’s choosing to invest a lot of time and energy into parenting and she has a high-earning partner do really well,” Glynn said. “But those kids would do well anyway because they come from upper-middle-class families.” Mom herself may not be making the difference. “It’s not like some magical benefit arises from a mom being home with you or a dad being home with you, it’s more about parental resources,” she added.
Another factor that makes an enormous difference: childcare quality. In the 80s, there was a nationwide nightmare of the terrors of daycare: child abuse, illnesses, and an overall detrimental impact on the country’s children because working mothers dropped them off before heading to work. Some of this was fueled by work done by Penn State University psychologist Jay Belsky that came to the conclusion that more than 20 hours a week of care from someone other than a mother carried risks of adjustment problems for infants. His findings were taken and run with to say that childcare was bad for kids, full stop, despite the fact that he had many important qualifiers in his work. The child abuse worries were found to be overblown. Kids in childcare get sicker at first and then build up more immunity.
Belsky himself said of his work, “I was not saying we shouldn’t have day care,” but rather, “I was saying that we need good day care. Quality matters.”
Belsky was absolutely right. A working mother who puts her child in daycare wouldn’t have any need to worry if the state of the American childcare system weren’t so poor. While there isn’t much good data, the best available research finds that the average rating is halfway between minimal quality and good quality. A 2007 survey found that only 10 percent of daycare operations provide high-quality care; care at the majority is either fair or poor.
And this is one of the biggest problems for today’s children.
“The quality of the care matters enormously,” Boushey said. But “the reality is that most childcare in the United States is not high quality or even of good quality.”
Good care can be a good thing. There are many studies finding that high-quality early childhood education programs can have a variety of positive outcomes later in life: better school performance, better odds of attending and graduating from college, lower chances of smoking, using drugs, depending on welfare, or becoming teen parents.
“We know higher-quality childcare has been shown to even have some cognitive and social benefits for children as compared to lower-quality settings,” Hannah Matthews, director of the child care and early education team at CLASP, said. Those improvements “can be long-lasting, through elementary school.”
The problem of low-quality care is particularly acute for low-income children. They may already be struggling with the adverse effects of parents who work low-wage, unstable jobs, and “when they’re accessing poor quality childcare, it’s compounding the impact on the child,” Matthews said. But all income levels struggle to find affordable, accessible, high-quality care for their kids. “There’s not a lot of choice out there, frankly across income levels,” she added.
Other countries show that it doesn’t have to be this way. In Norway, a recent study of 75,000 children in daycare found that the amount of time spent in care didn’t lead to an increase in behavioral problems. The country’s policies likely explain this outcome. It has national standards and regulation for providers and also offers enough paid parental leave so that most children don’t have to attend until age one. The daycare workers also often have college degrees in the field.
The U.S. has some regulations but they are not nearly as comprehensive and don’t impact many providers. “In America, [being a childcare provider] is the most low-paid job you can get,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. “There are no qualifications in terms of education or job training,”
Yet the focus has remained on whether mothers should work, not whether we should improve daycare. “It costs nothing to bash working mothers, but it’s expensive to provide high-quality childcare,” Warner noted.
Parents’ mental state themselves also has a big impact on their children’s development, which is often related to their employment.
“The evidence suggests that kids are happiest when their moms are happiest,” Coontz said. “We’ve had these long-standing studies that show women who have worked all their lives do better than women who stay home mentally and physically, even if the women are staying home by choice.” Women in high-quality jobs were found in a 2011 study to have fewer symptoms of depression than women in low-quality ones, even if they wanted to be staying home. Staying home, on the other hand, is associated with symptoms of depression for women who want to work. Another study the same year found that mothers with jobs tend to be happier and healthier than mothers who stay home with their kids. “Work is very good for women’s health mentally and physically,” Coontz added.
But as with childcare, where quality makes a big difference, job quality impacts parents’ wellbeing and therefore their children’s. The Center for Equitable Growth reports that a job’s stability, number of hours, scheduling predictability and flexibility, and time off all matter for both mothers’ and fathers’ parenting. “[T]he quality of a parent’s job affects the parent’s stress levels and the quality of time they spend with children, which…affects children’s outcomes in measurable ways.”
“Working moms are only bad for kids in a society that doesn’t support families at all,” Boushey said. “In a world with limited access to high-quality affordable childcare, in a world where most people work in jobs that don’t provide them the kind of flexibility they need to be good parents, in a world where you have rising income inequality, the challenges of mothers working can become insurmountable for families, but the alternative is not having income.”
Even as the idea that mothers who go to work harm their children persists against all odds, the research definitively lets them off the hook. But it does hold all of us accountable for children’s development. Working mothers aren’t harmful, the research finds; what is harmful is a lack of investment in decent, affordable childcare and good jobs that can keep a family afloat.