How Does Working Affect Your Kids Over the Long Haul?
When I was researching depression in children of mothers who work, every mother I talked to worried that working might be negatively impacting their children’s development. They worried that they should be spending more time with their kids and they felt guilty that they weren’t. During that research, I found that kids of working mothers actually had pretty high well-being. These kids were experiencing real-time benefits as a result of their mothers’ working. I tried to make the case that mothers didn’t need to feel guilty; their kids were actually doing quite well.
During my research I wasn’t able to really look at the question of the impact of mothers’ working on their kids’ long-term development, or on how it would affect them as they grew into adults. Were they advantaged or disadvantaged over the long-term. Fortunately, someone now has. Researchers from Harvard Business School decided to do just that. The research team analyzed 3 subsets of recently-published longitudinal data of over 100,000 men and women, between the ages of 18 and 60, located in 29 countries, plus related literature reviews. What they found should be very reassuring for working mothers everywhere!
The HBS research, released in 2018 (in working paper form and available from the Harvard Business Review) analyzed the adult outcomes of children whose mothers worked while they were growing up. My mother worked while I was growing up, as far back as I can remember. When I was a very small child (my mother returned to work when I was just two months old), I stayed during the day with my grandparents. I remember that beginning with grade school and after we moved away, my younger brother and I stayed with a variety of babysitters and friends’ moms, back in the days before after school programs. I don’t remember child care being an issue, I just remember that I spent every afternoon, and some early mornings, in the care of people who were not my parents. I think I turned out okay.
The Harvard-sponsored research supports my experience. Adult women whose mothers worked while they were children are more likely to work themselves, they are more likely to be managers or supervisors, have better job performance, and they generally make more money than their counterparts whose mothers did not work. Back to my own experience, I attribute my strong work ethic to observing my parents, and particularly my mother, as she went to work day after day. She set an example for me that I, in turn, set for my daughter, who is not yet a mother but has a busy and rewarding career in law. My daughter is resolute in her decision to continue working once she starts her family.
The positive findings were not limited to daughters, either. Sons whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to help around the house and spend more time parenting and in child care. They are also more likely to marry women who work (and as a result had higher household income) than their peers with mothers who did not work. Working mothers didn’t seem to move the needle much for their sons’ work ethic or career trajectory, as men are generally expected to work to support their family in our society.
One point that the researchers made is that we, in the U.S., are socialized to believe mothers should stay home. When mothers break with that deeply held belief to go to work, it’s hard for them in many ways, and they often experience emotional conflict that results in guilt.
Bottom line – based on this research, adult children of mothers who worked tend to be well-adjusted, successful, and happy. In short, the kids turned out okay.