Working Families

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The employment of mothers has been increasing to the point that it is now the modal pattern in the United States. In 1960, fewer than 30 percent of all mothers of children under age eighteen were in the labor force; forty years later, fewer than 30 percent were not in the labor force. Further, 64 percent of all married mothers with preschool children were in the labor force at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as were 73 percent of divorced mothers and 67 percent of the mothers who had never married. In fact, in two-parent families with infants one year old and under, 62 percent of the mothers were employed, a figure more than double the rate in 1975. Thus, most families in the early twenty-first century are "working families." There is considerable public interest in how this shift affects families and children, and it is a research area to which developmental psychologists have given considerable attention.

To understand the impact of maternal employment, it is important to realize that this change has been accompanied by other interrelated changes. Modern technology has diminished the amount of necessary housework and food preparation, women are more educated, marriages are less stable, life expectancy has been increased and youthfulness has been extended, expectations for personal fulfillment have expanded, and traditional gender-role attitudes are less widely held. There have also been changes in child-rearing practices, and the adult roles for which children are being socialized are not the same as previously. The increased employment of mothers is both an effect of these changes and also an influence on them. In addition, the accompanying social changes operate to modify the effects of maternal employment on the family and children.

For example, attitudes about women's roles have changed markedly over the years. The decrease in gender-role traditionalism is one of the factors that has led to the increased employment of mothers. The increased entry of mothers into the labor force itself, however, has also affected attitudes about gender roles. As more mothers seek employment, maternal employment has become more acceptable. In addition, it has affected the division of labor in the home. In dual-earner families, more than three-fourths of the mothers work full-time, thus decreasing the amount of time available for housework and child care. Studies of the family division of labor have long shown that when mothers work, fathers help more with housework and child care. In 1997 James T. Bond, Ellen Galinsky, and Jennifer E. Swanberg conducted a national-sample study to replicate a study from twenty years earlier. The new study found that fathers had become more active in household tasks and child care over the years. Although employed married mothers still do more housework and child care than their husbands, the difference has decreased. Attitudes have also changed. Not only is there more acceptance of mothers working, but there is also more acceptance of fathers helping with housework and child care. These changes, in turn, have modified the effects of employment on children and the stress on mothers. Research by Lois Hoffman and Lise Youngblade has shown that more active participation of fathers in child care and the resultant higher morale of the mothers have positive effects on children's academic performance and social adjustment.

School-Age Children

Most of the research over the years has compared school-age children of employed and nonemployed mothers in terms of academic and social competence. The results have failed to confirm the once widely held belief that mothers' employment would have negative effects on children. Indeed, effects seem mainly positive. The results, however, have not been the same across gender and social class. The most consistent pattern of positive outcomes has been for daughters of employed mothers.

In an extensive 1999 study, Hoffman and Young-blade examined how the mother's employment status affected child outcomes and then focused on why these effects occur. Daughters with employed mothers were found to have better academic and social skills, more independence, and a greater sense of efficacy, a view that their own actions are important determinants of what happens to them. Having an employed mother itself was related to the daughter's view that women are competent, and this was enhanced when there was a less traditional division of labor between parents. The view that women are competent increased the girls' sense of efficacy, and efficacy predicted social and academic competence. In addition, the data indicated that employed mothers across social class, mothers' marital status, and ethnicity, were less likely to use authoritarian and coercive discipline. This discipline style was particularly harmful for girls and was associated with a low sense of efficacy and shy, withdrawn behavior. Thus the employment status of mothers was linked to family effects that helped explain child outcomes.

Although the finding of higher scores on various cognitive and social adjustment measures for daughters of employed mothers has been consistent over the years, the results for sons have been mixed. Some of the earlier studies found higher academic scores for sons of employed mothers, others found no difference, and a few found lower scores for sons, but only in the middle class. In the study by Hoffman and Youngblade, children with working mothers scored higher on all cognitive measures across gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and mothers' marital status. The researchers suggested that the differences between the earlier studies and their own 1999 study reflected the change in fathers' roles over the decades.

Nevertheless, while the sons of employed mothers in the middle class obtained higher cognitive scores, they did not show better social adjustment. In fact, ratings by teachers and peers indicated that, in the middle class, sons of employed mothers who worked full-time engaged in more acting-out and aggressive behavior at school. This pattern was in contrast to sons of employed mothers in the blue-collar class and in poverty who showed less acting-out behavior, less aggression, and better social adjustment generally. An explanation for this class difference given by the researchers was that, although full-time homemakers across class used more authoritarian discipline than employed mothers, the discipline in the middle class was rarely harsh or severe. In the lower socioeconomic groups, and particularly among poor single mothers, this was not the case and harsh discipline was more common for full-time homemakers, though, paradoxically, so was permissiveness.

In addition, in the blue-collar and poverty classes, employed mothers were more likely than full-time homemakers to use a style of control developmental psychologists call "authoritative." Authoritative parenting is a style where parents support their control with reasons and explanations and allow some input from the child. It is a more common pattern in the middle class generally, but there it was not related to the mother's employment status. Thus, differences between employed and nonemployed mothers in the quality of parenting were more pronounced in the blue-collar and poverty groups, and these differences were linked to child outcomes.

An important reason maternal employment made such a difference in mothers' parenting styles in the lower-class families has to do with the mothers' sense of well-being. Although previous research has often shown that employed mothers have a higher sense of well-being than full-time homemakers, this result is most consistently found for mothers in the blue-collar and poverty groups. This was also true in the Hoffman and Youngblade study. In these lower-income families, the employed mothers scored lower on a measure of depressive mood and higher on a measure of positive morale. Further, for this group, the mothers' sense of well-being was shown to be the link between employment and more positive parenting styles. Employment status was not related to either measure in the middle class.

It may seem strange that employment has a more positive effect on mothers whose work may not be as interesting as the work available to more educated mothers. What these mothers value, however, is not the job itself, but the increased social support and stimulation provided by coworkers, the marked advantages that their wages bring to their families, and the greater sense of control that they feel over their lives. This is particularly true for poor single mothers who are often lonely and depressed, and for whom wages can make a major economic difference.

Infants and Toddlers

The research on infants and toddlers with working mothers has taken a different approach. At these early ages, it is very difficult to measure child outcomes that have long-term predictability, so studies have focused more on mother-child interaction or resorted to long-term designs. Studies of infants have examined the quantity and quality of mother-child interactions, and particular attention has been given to the security of the mother-infant attachment. The studies looking at quantity and quality suggest that although employed mothers spend less time with the infant during the workweek, they are more highly interactive when with them. The studies of attachment have produced mixed results, complicated by measurement difficulties. Most studies found mothers' employment status unrelated to the quality of the mother-infant attachment, but a few found that attachment was less secure when the mother was employed full-time. The most extensive investigation of these issues is an ongoing study conducted by a team of researchers under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). In this study, as reported in 1997, neither the child's age at the onset of employment nor the amount of nonmaternal care was found to be related to the security of attachment. What was important was the quality of the mother-child interaction and particularly the mother's sensitivity to the child's needs.

Nonmaternal Care

When mothers are employed, there are often times when both school-age and preschool children need nonmaternal care. A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the effects of non-maternal care on preschoolers. Previous research on the effects of daycare indicated that although the day-care experience was often associated with higher cognitive competence, it was also associated with less compliance and more assertiveness with peers. The NICHD study, as reported in 1998, found that the major variables predicting children's negativity were the mother's sensitivity and her psychological adjustment. Both higher quality of nonmaternal care and greater experience in groups with other children predicted socially competent behavior. It was also the case, however, that more time in child care and less stable care predicted problematic and noncompliant behavior. On the whole, the results indicated that the home environment is the major influence on child outcomes, but that the quality and stability of the non-maternal care does have an effect.

When children are of school age, working families still have to deal with issues of control and supervision when work hours and school hours do not overlap. An increasing number of schools and community organizations have responded by setting up after-school and before-school programs as well as supervised lunchrooms. Neighbors, relatives, and older siblings often fill in. Some children, however, return from school to an empty house. The effects of such unsupervised care vary widely depending on whether the child stays in the home and is governed by set rules and telephone contact, where the child spends this time if not in the home, and the safety of the neighborhood. For children of all ages, however, the prevalence of working families has brought with it a need for community programs and affordable, stable, high-quality nonparental care—a need that has not yet been met. This is an important social issue that needs to be addressed given that most families today are working families.



Bond, James T., Ellen Galinsky, and Jennifer E. Swanberg. 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce. New York: Families and Work Institute, 1998.

Clarke-Stewart, Alison. "Infant Day Care: Maligned or Malignant?" American Psychologist 44 (1989):266-273.

Hoffman, Lois W., and Lise M. Youngblade. Mothers at Work: Effects on Children's Well-Being. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network. "The Effects of Infant Child Care on Mother-Infant Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Child Development 68 (1997):860-879.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network. "Early Child Care and Self-Control, Compliance, and Problem Behavior at Twenty-Four and Thirty-Six Months." Child Development 69 (1998):1145-1170.

Warr, Peter, and Glenys Parry. "Paid Employment and Women's Psychological Well-Being." Psychological Bulletin 91 (1982):498-516.

Lois WladisHoffman