Working mothers and the effects on children

22 July 2011

Parents struggling to combine paid work with bringing up their children now have some positive news thanks to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on maternal employment and child socio-emotional behaviour in the UK. The research shows that there are no significant detrimental effects on a child’s social or emotional development if their mothers work during their early years.

The ideal scenario for children, both boys and girls, was shown to be where both parents lived in the home and both were in paid employment. For children living with two parents, the impact of the working life of the mother may partly depend on the father’s own working arrangements. However using data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, the researchers discovered that the relationship between behavioural difficulties and employment of the mother was stronger for girls than for boys and that this was not explained by household income, level of mother’s education or depression in the mother.

While boys in households, where the mother was the breadwinner, displayed more difficulties at age five than boys living with two working parents, the same was not true for girls. Girls in traditional households where the father was the breadwinner were more likely to have difficulties at age five than girls living in dual-earner households.

The principal researcher in this study, Dr Anne McMunn, has said: "Mothers who work are more likely to have higher educational qualifications, live in a higher income household, and have a lower likelihood of being depressed than mothers who are not in paid work. These factors explain the higher levels of behavioural difficulties for boys of non-working mothers, but the same was not true for girls"

As previous research has indicated, children in single-mother households and in two-parent households in which neither parent was in work were much more likely to have challenging behaviour at age five than children where both parents were in paid employment. Household income however, and maternal characteristics can mitigate the effects of this.

"Some studies have suggested that whether or not mothers work in the first year of a child’s life can be particularly important for later outcomes. In this study we did not see any evidence for a longer-term detrimental influence on child behaviour of mothers working during the child’s first year of life" states Dr Anne McMunn.

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Notes for editors:

  1. This press release is based on the findings from 'Maternal employment and child socio-emotional behaviour in the UK: longitudinal evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Anne McMunn and researchers from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health (www.ucl.ac.uk/icls) at UCL.
  2. Methodology: The project used data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which is a prospective study of children born in the UK at the start of the new millennium. MCS data are publicly available and ethical approval for data collection was obtained from a multi-centre research ethics committee in the UK.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.