A WORKING mother knows that balancing the demands of private home and high-rise office is not her only worry. While busy, breadwinning fathers are unlikely to provoke moral panic, the public’s interest in how working women raise their children is easily piqued. One of Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers proclaimed fearfully on Friday: “Three in four middle-class mothers continue to work after having a baby, a study shows… The figures point to a relentless rise in the number of working mothers of very young children.”
Contrary to these veiled aspersions, the study in question should reassure career-minded mothers. Conducted by researchers at University College London, it surveyed 19,000 British households to determine how parental employment affects a child’s behaviour throughout the first five years of life.
The results will startle those who think that children benefit from having a stay-at-home mum. In fact, the paper indicates that maternal employment can often improve the chances of having well-adjusted kids.
For example, five-year-olds whose mothers had been at home when they were babies were more likely to have behavioural problems than other children. For each child, the longer the time their mother was off work, the more bratty was the child’s behaviour. Housebound women were also far more likely to report symptoms of depression than their working counterparts, problems which can only make the process of childrearing more difficult.
Of course, life can rarely be boiled down to simple equations of cause and effect. What complicates this picture is the correlation between work patterns and other factors like lower household income, poorer education and depression, which might affect whether a woman chooses to go to work. Interestingly, when the study adjusted for these factors, the relationship between bad behaviour and maternal unemployment remained strong for girls but not for boys. This may reflect, the authors said, “the importance of gender in family role model processes”—the inference being that girls benefit from having a mother as an exemplar of a woman who is successful and independent, while the effect is less pronounced for boys.
The paper also looked at the working arrangements of all adults in the household—a sensible method, and a point of distinction with other studies that focused exclusively on what mothers do with their time. Once again, the trends differed by sex. Boys, but not girls, were likely to suffer from their mother being the sole breadwinner, although once the results were adjusted for income, education and depression, the detrimental impact on boys disappeared. Boys thrived equally in homes where both parents were working, and in two-parent “traditional” families in which their mothers stayed at home. Girls, in contrast, appeared to have significantly fewer problems where both parents were employed than in traditional homes.
For social progressives, the results are mixed. Working women can head to their desks knowing that they are doing their daughters a service, and that they are not doing their sons any harm. Yet the study also suggests (the admittedly widely-accepted proposition) that the children of single mothers are more likely to be troublesome, and that the best arrangement for both boys and girls is to live in a two-parent household in which both adults are employed. These results provide a robust defence of why women should be supported in returning to work after childbirth; they make it harder, how
The study has other limitations, too. It restricted its analysis to white children because of problems with sampling other ethnicities. Statistically, that is not a huge drawback: 92% of Britons identified themselves as white in the 2001 census. A bigger issue is the way the data were collected, involving questionnaires about children’s behaviour, almost always answered by mothers. Working mums know that they are vulnerable to criticism from certain sections of society and the media; when surveyed, this might incline them to paint defensively rosy portraits of their children, and so to skew the results.