Why science doesn't care if you work or stay at home

In the so called 'mummy wars' about stay at home mums vs working mums I am a fence sitter. I see the advantage of staying at home with an infant or young child while also realizing how important it is for many individual women, their families and society in general for women to be in the workforce. Personally, I was lucky enough to be able to return to work part time when MissC was eleven months old  but many women are not so fortunate.

The only opinion I really have is that

  1. It is a damn shame that mothers in some countries will lose their jobs if they do not return to work within a few weeks of giving birth. 
  2. Sanctimony on either side is really irritating

As such, I figured that the research would show clear benefits on both sides and the decision would be as to which aspect was the most important. The science however is different, there is no established benefit either way. Some studies will find negative cognitive outcomes for children whose mothers work (Brooks-Gunn, Han & Waldfogel 202,, Han, Waldfogel & Gunn 2004) while another will find negative cognitive outcomes for children whose mothers do not work (Loeb et al 2007). Likewise, some studies find poorer behavior in children of working mothers (Han, Wadfogel & Brooks-Gunn 2004, Loeb et al 2007) while others find improved behavior (Berger et al 2008) and socioemotional functioning (Coley and Lombardi 20123). Other studies have found no difference between the groups ( NICHD Early Child Care Research Network and Duncan, 2003Peisner-Feinberg et al., 2001).

When you review the theories that are put forward as to why mothers should not work it becomes apparent why this is the case

  1. Economic theory: Maternal employment decreases the time and energy available to devote to parenting (Becker & Tomes 1986)
  2. Attachment theory: Employment reduces the time and experience required to build sensitive, responsive parenting skills that are essential in the development of secure infant attachments impacting on children's exploration, learning and emotional security (Bowlby 1951)
  3. Balancing the demands of employment and infants is stressful to mothers causing a decrease in maternal well being, parenting quality and ultimately child outcomes (Parcel & Menaghan 1994)
  4. Child care for infants is limited, expensive and of inadequate quality so posing a risk to children's development (Paulsell et al 2002)

As such the major concern appears to be that the decrease of time spent with the child may impact on parenting quality. Under this theory, employment will not effect the primary attachment so long as the parent remains sensitive and responsive. Whether the mother remains sensitive and responsive while working obviously comes down to a mix of psychological factors and family dynamics. These together with home environment and the quality of the care environment provided are likely to be more important in ultimate child outcomes than whether a mother works or not. Importantly work can provide a protective psychological boost to the mother (Raver 2003; Coley et al 2007) creating an increase in self esteem and a decrease in depressive symptoms which creates a feed on increase in parenting skills and outcomes for their children. It should not be overlooked either the value a mother's income can add to a family (Raver 2003).
More important possibly than any psychological studies are studies on population reported use of time. These have found that mother's time spent with children has largely remained stable in spite of the large increases in the number of women in the workforce. It is likely this is due to working mothers optimising time with their children at home by decreasing the amount of time spent in housework, volunteer work or leisure (Bianchi 2000). We may fail to appreciate all that stay at home mothers do but we also fail to appreciate how much working mothers do to protect their investment in their children.

Becker, G. S., & Tomes, N. 1986Human capital and the rise and fall of familiesJournal of Labor Economics4S1S139. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from http://www.nber.org/chapters/c11237.pdf
Berger, L.Brooks-Gunn, J.Paxson, C., & Waldfogel, J. (2008). First-year maternal employment and child outcomes: Differences across racial and ethnic groupsChildren and Youth Services Review30365387
Bianchi, S. Maternal employment and time with children: Dramatic change or surprising continuity? Demography. 2000. 37: 4. 401-414
Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
Brooks–Gunn, J., Han, W. and Waldfogel, J. (2002), Maternal Employment and Child Cognitive Outcomes in the First Three Years of Life: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care. Child Development, 73: 1052–1072. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00457
Han, W.-J., Waldfogel, J. and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2001), The Effects of Early Maternal Employment on Later Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63: 336–354. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00336.x
Coley, R. L.Lohman, B. J.Votruba-Drzal, E.Pittman, L. D., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (2007). Maternal functioning, time and money: The world of work and welfareChildren and Youth Services Review29721741.
Coley, R. L. and Lombardi, C. M. (2013), Does Maternal Employment Following Childbirth Support or Inhibit Low-Income Children’s Long-Term Development?. Child Development, 84: 178–197. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01840.x
(Becker & Tomes, 1986
Loeb S. Bridges, M. Bassok D. Fuller B. & Rumberger R. 2007. How much is too much? The influence of preschool centers on children's social and cognitive development. Economics of Education Review. Volume 26. Issue 1. 
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, & Duncan, G. J. (2003). Modeling the impacts of child care quality on children’s preschool cognitive developmentChild Development7414541475
Paulsell, D., Cohen, J., Stieglitz, A., Lurie-Hurvitz, E., Fenichel, E., & Kisker, E.2002. Partnerships for quality: Improving infant-toddler child care for low-income families. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.
Parcel, T. L., & Menaghan, E. G. 1994Early parental work, family social capital, and early childhood outcomesAmerican Journal of Sociology999721009.
Peisner-Feinberg, E. S.Burchinal, M.Clifford, R. M.Culkin, M.Howes, C.Kagan, S. L.et al. 2001The relation of preschool child care quality to children’s cognitive and social developmental trajectories through second gradeChild Development72,15341553.
Raver, C. 2003Does work pay psychologically as well as economically? The role of employment in predicting depressive symptoms and parenting among low-income familiesChild Development7417201736


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