4 minute read


Extent And Effects Of Maternal Employment

During the past few decades the proportion of women in labor force has increased dramatically in all industrialized societies. In the United States, the married mothers' employment rate increased from 39.7 percent in 1970 to 70.1 percent in 1999 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000). Among mothers of children aged six to seventeen, 49.2 percent and 77.1 percent were employed in 1970 and 1999, respectively. Among mothers with children under the age of six, their employment rate doubled from 1970 (30.3%) to 1999 (61.8%). The increasing trend of maternal employment is seen in other industrialized countries such as Japan and Canada.

The above figures indicate that the majority of mothers in the United States experience dual roles of being a parent and a paid worker. A number of studies also show that women still bear more responsibility for childcare than their male counterparts (e.g., Hochschild 1989). Working mothers, therefore, are engaged in a second shift of caring for their children and families upon returning from their first shift of paid work (Hochschild 1989). Since mothers are more likely to prepare their children for day care and school in the morning hours than fathers, working mothers, in reality, are engaged in three shifts combining family carework and paid work.

An increase of labor-force participation among mothers also suggests that being a mother—even of an infant—is no longer a major deterrent to women's employment (Moen 1992). According to Moen, the three types of mothers most likely to return to work before their infants are a year old are the young mother (a married mother under age twenty-four with a high school education), the delayed childbearer (a mother with at least some college education who postponed starting her family until after age twenty-four), and the unmarried mother (a white high school graduate who already has two or more children and has been divorced or separated). It should be noted, however, that although the American public has shown more acceptance of the employment of married women, the employment of mothers with young children has not enjoyed the same level of endorsement (Moen 1992). This is largely due to beliefs that maternal employment has harmful effects on young children.

A number of studies in the early 1990s explored the effects of maternal employment on child outcomes but yielded inconsistent results. Whereas some studies reported that maternal employment was a negative influence on children's cognitive and social development, others found enhanced cognitive outcomes for children as a function of early maternal employment (Vandell and Ramanan 1992). Studies in late 1990s report that neither early maternal employment status nor the timing and continuity of maternal employment were consistently related to a child's developmental outcome (Harvey 1999). A few significant findings reported that mothers' working more hours in the first three years was associated with slightly lower vocabulary scores up through age nine (Harvey 1999). Among low-income adolescent mothers, maternal employment was also associated with their children's lower verbal development (Luster et al. 2000). However, maternal employment during the first year of the child's life is slightly more beneficial for the children of single mothers, and early parental employment was related to more positive child outcomes for low-income families (Harvey 1999).

Although these results suggest that maternal employment status has few negative effects on young children, other research in the 1990s reported some of the conditions under which maternal work makes a difference in family relations. For example, when mothers frequently engaged in shared activities with children such as reading books and telling stories, the potentially disruptive effects of changes in maternal employment status on children's social and cognitive competence were mitigated. Additionally, less secure attachment relationships between mothers and children were more common when the quality of alternative childcare was poor and unstable (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 1997).

The mothers' struggle of balancing work and family has also been reported in developing regions (such as Latin America), post-socialist regions (such as Russia), and industrialized countries (such as Great Britain and Japan). Helen Safa (1992), for example, reports that despite increased employment of married women in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, housework and childcare are still perceived as women's responsibility, even when they are making major contributions to the household economy. Similarly, for many women in Great Britain, the absence of choices concerning childcare poses a major problem in pursuing outside employment (MacLennan 1992). Compared to these countries, mothers in Nordic countries have a less stressful experience in balancing motherhood and paid work due to the comprehensive maternity-parental leave system in which parents of children under the age of one are financially supported for childcare by governmental policies (Haavio-Mannila and Kauppinen 1992). It should be noted, however, this does not mean that gender-based discrimination in the larger social context does not exist in Nordic countries as evidenced by sex segregation in the workplace.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodMotherhood - Transition To Motherhood, Maternal Role In Childrearing, Extent And Effects Of Maternal Employment, Motherhood And Marital Quality