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Research Review

Mothers' Early Return to Work Not Associated With Negative Outcomes in Most Children

Children whose mothers return to work before their offspring turn three are no more likely to have academic or behavioral problems than kids whose mothers stay at home, according to a review of 50 years of research.

“Overall, I think this shows women who go back to work soon after they have their children should not be too concerned about the effects their employment has on their children’s long-term well-being,” says psychologist Rachel Lucas-Thompson, PhD, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and lead study author.

For some families, having a mom on the job is better for children, according to the meta-analysis of 69 studies conducted between 1960 and 2010. For example, children from single-parent or low-income families whose mothers worked had better academic and intelligence scores and fewer behavioral problems than children whose mothers did not work, the authors found. This was probably due in part to increased resources that the income afforded, they said. The findings appear online in Psychological Bulletin.

“This is the first comprehensive and systematic look at maternal employment during children’s early years and what effect it has on children, specifically in the area of school performance, intelligence, and behavioral problems,” says Lucas-Thompson. “For years, there has been a lot of debate in this area of research and now we can see more clearly for which families there are positive or negative associations with having a mom who works.”

Children in poorer families may benefit more from having a working mother because the added income helps to reduce the child’s stress and leads to more opportunities, according to Lucas-Thompson. In addition, she says, the mothers become positive role models for their children.

The analysis included studies where the mother returned to work, either part-time or full-time, within three years of giving birth. To be considered, the studies had to measure school performance through achievement test scores, school grades, intelligence test scores, and teacher ratings of cognitive abilities. Behavioral problems were reported by parents, teachers or the older children themselves. Many of the studies were longitudinal, meaning the researchers followed families for several years after the mothers went back to work and even into the children’s adolescent years.

Further analyses suggested that children in middle- and upper-class families with two parents were slightly more likely to see decreases in achievement later on. In addition, slight increases in externalizing behaviors were evident later on if the mother went back to work full-time during the first year of the child’s life. “This suggests that families who are not struggling financially may not see as many benefits of maternal employment on very young children,” says Lucas-Thompson. “For these families, it’s possible that alternate care arrangements may not be as emotionally supportive as the child’s mother.”

— Source: American Psychological Association