National Post

Monday, March 01, 1999

Message for working moms: Your kids are okay
No long-term effects: Study shows children coping better than they did a decade ago

Corbin Andrews
National Post

The results of a new study may help relieve some of the guilt that working mothers feel about not spending enough time with their children. The research, published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, shows that a mother's employment, outside of the home, has no long-term negative effects on children.

"We found that children whose mothers worked during the first three years of their lives were not significantly different from children whose mothers did not work during that time frame," says Dr. Elizabeth Harvey, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the study's author.

Harvey's research is based on data from 12,600 people who were interviewed every year starting in 1979 for the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). Her conclusions were based on four variables, including whether or not the mother returned to work after giving birth, whether she worked during the child's first three years, how many hours she worked, and the steadiness of her employment. These variables were then compared to the child's behaviour, which was measured by assessing the child's self-esteem, later academic achievement, mental development, and compliance.

Harvey says that she found only a slight indication of children being negatively affected by their mother's employment.

"The children of mothers who returned to work shortly after giving birth were somewhat less compliant, and acted out more, than children whose mothers waited to return," she says. "But the negative effects did not last long and were usually completely gone by the time the child was five years old."

Yet while children may not obviously suffer from the absence of working parents, research suggests that parents are feeling the strain themselves. A study published last August by University of Cincinnati sociologist Dr. David J. Maume Jr. and colleagues showed that more than 70% of working parents are having trouble juggling work commitments and family life.

And it's not only women who are feeling the strain, he says. "Most people think that women with young children experience the most conflict between work and family responsibilities, but our survey results show that men also desire to spend time with their families," he says, noting that higher income levels do not make it easier. "Concern about competing work and family demands does not diminish as education and income rises, or as children get older."

But Harvey says that although parents may have trouble, children seem to be coping better than they were a decade ago. Her research is the sixth study to use NLSY data since the 1980s. Surprisingly, her conclusions contradict many of those reached by the researchers of previous studies.

"The other studies were done in the 1980s," she says. "And they didn't take into account factors such as the quality of child care or the levels of incomes of the working mothers."

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