With International Women's Day on the 8th of March, Mothers day on the 18th of March (if you are in the UK at least) and Women's History Month for the entire duration of March, women have been the focus of a lot of news stories lately. A lot of these are positive, inspiring stories; others perhaps a bit unsettling; and others are stories we have heard many times before.
In that last category, working mothers are a favourite. News article reporting on the continuous stress of being a working mother, or the detrimental effects working mothers have on their children's development are plentiful. Most of these stories are based on a single, often misinterpreted study, or try to claim that it is common sense that children need their mothers to be bodily present in order for them to grow up normally. But do these claims hold up when we look at actual data?
In recognition of International Women's Day, University College London dedicated one of its famous lunch hour lectures to the topic of working mothers. Dr Anne McMunn elaborated on her research tracking mothers and children over time using two birth cohorts: one from 1958 whose children have grown up to be the working mothers of a generation, and the Millennium Cohort Study, whose children are under the auspices of working mothers today.
You might be forgiven for thinking that working mothers are a stressed out bunch. A quick Google Image search brings up plenty of pictures of multi-tasking mothers faced with demanding toddlers, dishes, dodgy suitcases and corded phones. Meanwhile, a similar search on working dads brings up an entirely different array of pictures (although there is one that does show a challenging combination of paternal multi-tasking).
Most of us seem to agree that the idea that it is impossible to combine motherhood with a career is as dated as the corded phones accompanying most articles on the subject. The second myth, that children are the ones who suffer from not having a stay-at-home mother, appears harder to beat.
It is obvious that having a working mother, as a breadwinner or as second working parent, has its benefits: she serves as a role model and the extra cash a second working parent can bring in would certainly not be missed in times like these. The question is whether these benefits weigh up to the drawback of having less parent-child face time.
According to research by Dr McMunn, the benefits of being a working mother clearly outweigh the risks . Her team looked into the socio-emotional behaviour of just under 13,000 five-year old children in the Millennium Cohort Study. They compared children growing up in a dual-earner household, with those in other types of household, such as traditional households, households with a female breadwinner, unemployed households and lone mothers.
The socio-emotional behaviour the researchers were on the lookout for included behaviour such as hyperactivity and emotional symptoms. These behaviours would be the sort of problems you might expect if children really were at a disadvantage from having their mothers go to work. When they compared the number of children displaying these sorts of behaviours between family types, taking other factors such as mother's age, education, possible depression and household income into account, it became apparent that children of dual-earner parents were quite well off.
Even more so: the most beneficial working arrangement for both girls and boys was that in which both mothers and fathers were present in the household and in paid work. These results add to a growing body of work showing that having a mother with a paid job can only be a good thing [see for example: 2, 3 below]. The idea that having a working mother is bad for children really does appear to be no more than a myth.