Is it time to stop bashing the working mom?

Whether kids of working mothers are better off than those of homemakers is a matter of much debate. But there are certain clear benefits of having a working mom. Read on to find out what they are.

By Aruna Raghuram  • 16 min read

Is it time to stop bashing the working mom?

When Mama goes to work, she wears her working clothes.
She combs her hair, she packs a lunch, she takes her special bag.

When Mama goes to work, I wear my playing clothes.
I comb my hair, I pack a lunch, I take my special bag.

These simple yet evocative lines are from the book When Mama Goes to Work by Marsha Skrypuch. The book describes the lives and activities of children and their working mothers during the day. The premise of the book is that secure and confident children will enjoy themselves and concentrate on learning and play when their moms are away at work, while looking forward to being reunited with their mothers when they get home. It also shows how children and parents keep each other in their thoughts even when they are apart and alludes to the positive effects of working mothers.
Even as women today prove that they are experts at juggling work and home, there remains that niggling doubt in the mind - do kids benefit more from having a working mom or a stay-at-home mom? There is no clear, conclusive answer. The debate is ongoing. But here, we focus on the positive side –the proven benefits for children of working mothers.
Way back in 1998, well-known psychologist Lois Hoffman said in his study paper ‘The Effects of the Mother’s Employment on the Family and the Child’ that the mother’s employment status does have effects on families and children but few of these effects are negative ones.
“Indeed, most seem positive - the higher academic outcomes for children, benefits in their behavioural conduct and social adjustment, and the higher sense of competence and effectiveness in daughters…most families accommodate to the mother's employment and in doing so provide a family environment that works well. In two-parent families, the fathers take on a larger share of the household tasks and child care and this seems to have benefits for the children,” he said.
Hoffman’s study had three other important findings:

  • Working mothers are more likely to use the authoritative style of parenting, which experts believe is ideal.
  • They tend to differentiate less between sons and daughters in terms of discipline style and goals for their children, and encourage both girls and boys to be independent.
  • They are more affectionate toward their children.

Effects of working mother on child development
Young children whose mothers are not working have lower capabilities in terms of talking, social skills, movement and everyday skills, according to a research titled ‘The development and happiness of very young children’ (2016) authored by Prof Anand from the London School of Economics and Dr Roope from the University of Oxford. The children studied were 2-3 years of age and drawn from a sample of Indian families.
The study found that spending more time in day-care centres is associated with better social skills and better everyday skills, while spending more hours being cared for by grandparents is associated with better talking skills and social skills.

A word of caution
Pune-based clinical psychologist Shalini Prakash stresses the need for a mother to focus on bonding with her child till the child is at least six years old. “When we talk of the benefits of having a working mother, I would think the age of the child is crucial. Till the child is six, it is very important that he feels adequately loved, nurtured, safe, and secure. This is vital for his physical, mental, emotional and social development. It also lays the foundation of trust. If the bonding is not adequate, a child could develop anxiety issues. Between six and seven years of age, a child enters a different world. He gets busy with school, homework, extracurricular activities and friends. I would suggest that a woman takes up a part-time job or works from home till a child is six.”

Advantages of having working mothers

Working moms are good role models: A study led by Harvard Business School’s Prof McGinn titled ‘Learning from Mum: Cross-National Evidence Linking Maternal Employment and Adult Children’s Outcomes’ (2018) validates the theory that working moms are good role models for their daughters. According to the study, which focuses on the long-term benefits of having a working mother, women whose moms worked outside the home: (i) are more likely to have jobs (ii) hold supervisory responsibility in those jobs and (iii) earn higher wages than women with stay-at-home mothers.

For me, being a mother made me a better professional, because coming home every night to my girls reminded me what I was working for. And being a professional made me a better mother, because by pursuing my dreams, I was modelling for my girls how to pursue their dreams.
– Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the US

What about the lessons for men raised by working mothers? Prof McGinn’s study found that they are more likely to: (i) contribute to household chores and (ii) spend more time caring for family members. These beneficial outcomes are because working mothers tend to hold and convey egalitarian gender attitudes. Also, when children see their fathers helping their mothers with household chores it reinforces the concept of gender equality.

Children develop a strong work ethic: Seeing their mother go to work every day, multi-tasking, and managing home and family too, makes children respect and appreciate her for all the hard work she does. This instils in them a value for hard work and self-discipline.
Pamela Lenehan, author of My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know, raised two children while working as one of the first women executives on Wall Street. She conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people in the 23-44 age group. Some of the participants in the survey had working mothers, others had stay-at-home moms. According to the survey, 50% of daughters surveyed said their working mothers were very helpful in instilling a strong work ethic in them, versus 32% of daughters whose mothers stayed at home.

Independence and sense of responsibility: Children of working mothers pick up these life skills more easily and at an earlier age. The reason is simple – since both parents are working, and time and energy are limited, parents expect their kids at an appropriate age to get ready for school on their own (pack their bags and keep their uniforms ready), help with household chores, and do their own homework. Doing all these little tasks can give them a sense of self-worth and boost their confidence tremendously. Helping their mom around the house also strengthens the mother-child bond.

Flexibility coupled with resilience: Children of working moms know that they have to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, they may get picked up a little later from school as mom is delayed at work. Or, they may have to pack their own lunch boxes for school as mom had to rush to office for an early meeting. Most children who feel loved, and trust their parents to be there for them when they are really needed, will adjust in such situations.
Since the life of children having a working mother is not easy, she tries to equip them with resilience to bounce back from setbacks and deal courageously with problems.

Parent Speak
If a woman wants an identity, (and there is an IF here) that is independent of her husband and family, then I believe it is best for the child, as well as the rest of the family, that she pursues it. Because the sense of gratification she will get from doing what she likes to do will make her an immensely happy person. That sense of well-being will be in turn passed on to the kids and the rest of the family. It is a contagious sentiment. The universal truth that only a happy person can make others happy certainly applies to a mother.
My personal mantra in parenting has been no interference in the time spent with kids. For instance, I avoid looking at the phone when I am with them. Most importantly, I keep my daughters involved in my work. I tell them to watch me on TV and show them my photographs whenever they appear in print. They feel a sense of pride and connection with my work. Balancing a demanding profession and motherhood is difficult, but I believe it is possible. An understanding spouse and a supportive family certainly help. Deal with each obstacle, one at a time. Take a deep breath and keep at it.
- Jumana Shah, journalist and mother of two young daughters

Learning the value of money: Children belonging to families where both parents work have access to more opportunities and better facilities because of the double income. You may think this would make them wasteful of money, but this depends entirely on the parenting. If parents inculcate the right values in their children, this is unlikely to happen. Also, these children see their parents work hard to earn a living.
Moreover, when they understand that their mother is working partly to contribute financially to the household, they come to appreciate where the money is coming from and the importance of budgeting and saving.
Along with the value of money, watching their working mom manage time judiciously makes them value time as well. They learn how to prioritise, and pick up valuable time management skills.

Quality time with mom: Working moms do spend less time with their kids. However, the quality of time spent is better than in the case of moms who don’t work outside the home. This is because working mothers want to make every moment special as they are aware of the need to bond with their child. They try to consciously switch off the minute they get home and reconnect with their work or focus on their phones once the kids are in bed.
Also, working moms tend to manage their time more efficiently. They will ensure that they have special chunks of time on weekends and holidays to plan activities with their kids. Since they have been away all day, they tend to be more affectionate and loving when they get home. In contrast, a stay-at-home mother may reach the end of her tether towards the end of the day.

Happier mothers make better parents: It might be debatable whether working women are happier than homemakers. It depends on many factors, primarily, the temperament of the woman. However, it is a given that if a woman is frustrated and depressed because she cannot work for some reason but wants to, she may not make a happy parent.
There are three reasons working moms may be happier:

  • They have a higher feeling of self-worth and feel fulfilled
  • A working woman is likely to have a strong relationship with her partner if the latter is understanding and supportive. Here it must be noted that if parents are able to sync their work schedules and travel, their child will get less affected by their absence.
  • Since they get a break from family responsibilities and the demands of child-rearing when they are at work, they are more likely to be cheerful around the home.
Is it time to stop bashing the working mom?

Academics and behavioural problems: A meta-analysis of 69 studies, published by Lucas-Thompson and colleagues (2010) in Psychological Bulletin, found that early maternal employment is not commonly associated with lower academic performance or behaviour problems.
In fact, the study found that children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behavioural or social problems, and tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety.
Of course, working mothers are likely to be more tired and stressed out. They may, at times get irritated with their kids and not be able to attend all school events. Working moms may miss out on first words, first steps or other childhood milestones. If the child is being left at a day-care centre, it is vital to select a good one where the child will be happily engaged.
But all in all, the belief that working mothers can bring up healthy and well-adjusted kids seems to hold true.

In a nutshell

  • There are several advantages of having a working mother. For example, a child learns the value of hard work and of money
  • Research has shown that children whose mothers worked when they were young have no major learning, behavioural, or social problems.
  • It may be a struggle to manage work and home, but women who prefer working, usually make happier mothers.

What parents can do right away

  • Teach your child how to be independent and responsible
  • Ensure you spend quality time with your child
  • Inculcate in children a value for time and money

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 12 July 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article she was a consultant with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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