Working Mothers: Role Models to the Next Generation

iStock_000003367609XSmallBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

Alex Crawford, whose coverage of the capture of Tripoli for UK news channel Sky News made recent headlines, has declared that it’s “offensive and sexist” to ask how she raises her four children and adds that she objects to the way in which female war correspondents are asked if they can juggle motherhood and frontline journalism when their male counterparts do not face similar questions. Speaking to the Edinburgh International Television Festival via satellite link from Libya, Crawford added that she thinks that “as a woman, you bring a different view to the whole thing … a woman who’s been through the same experiences, even if it’s giving birth, that gives you an empathy.”

Crawford would therefore doubtless be pleased to read some recently published research from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which suggests that children whose mothers work outside the home are no more likely to have behavioural or emotional problems at age 5 than kids whose mums stayed at home.
“We don’t see detrimental effects on children’s behaviour with maternal employment,” says study researcher Anne McMunn, PhD, a senior research fellow at University College, London.

Living with two working parents seems to be best for kids, and this effect was apparent even after researchers took into account the mothers’ education level and household income.

Girls may even fare worse if their mothers stay at home. Girls whose mums weren’t working at all in the first five years of their life were twice as likely to have behavioural problems at age 5, the study showed.

“Working mothers should not feel guilty that this will have any impact on the social, emotional, or behavioural development of their children and if anything, they may be doing a service in terms of increased income and some positive effect for girls,” McMunn says.

The new study analysed data on parental employment when children were infants, 3 years old, and 5 years old. The researchers compared this information with social and emotional behaviour at age 3 and 5 to see if the mothers’ work status had an effect on risk for problems later on.

Guilt Edged

Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist in Middlesex County, N.J., and author of several books, including The Case for the Only Child, says the new study validates what she has been saying for years.
“It pays to work,” Newman says. “If you have reliable, nurturing caregivers, working just doesn’t have the negative effect on children that many people have come to believe.

“There are no concrete, definable negative effects on young children if you are a working mother. Parents who do the best job are the ones who have interests outside of children, and working is certainly one of these interests,” she says. “If you need to work or want to work, guilt is a wasted emotion.”

Voices of experience

We recently surveyed a group of working mothers who are regular users of a popular UK-based community forum and asked them for their views on being back at work – how do they, their employers and their children benefit? Although many of the women mentioned guilt as being an issue, they were all clear that the benefits of working outside the home were clear and listed the paybacks for their employers as including:

  • The retention of skilled and knowledgeable members of the team;
  • More engaged, committed members of staff – who are grateful for the opportunities to return to work, keep their skills, progress their careers and stay on the ramp;
  • “We have great time management and juggling skills!”;
  • And patience – “we’re less inclined to sweat the small stuff”’
  • Hard working and committed: “we’re there to get the job done.”
  • One woman summarised this by saying: “My employer benefits because, frankly, I’m an asset to them. I know that sounds bigheaded, but I haven’t suddenly lost my skills or experience just because I’ve had a child. They employed me pre-children because of my skills and for me not to return would be a waste of all they have invested in me (recruitment, training) not to mention the knowledge of the organisation that I have built up.”

    Role models for the next generation

    Many of the women spoke of the benefit of providing role models for their children – of both genders – when it came to working outside the home, commenting that “I want to be a career role model to my own daughter, just as my mother was to me” and “I think it’s important that my son sees that both his parents contribute to the family’s finances.”

    Others spoke of the sense of self created by their careers, with one lawyer telling us that:

    “I went back to work because I’m not ready to quit work, retire or retrain yet. I’ve been working for just over 10 years, there’s another 30 until proper retirement age, and unless I wanted to re-qualify or start an entirely new career, I have to keep my hand in and keep up to date, do CPD.”

    Rachel summed up the feelings of many when she told us:

    “For me, my work ‘defines’ who I am. I like doing what I do and feel that that person is more ‘me’ than being a mum is. Don’t get me wrong – of course I love my kids to bits – but I can’t just be a mum, I need to be this other person too.”