Working Moms with Children: Role Conflict?

Working moms often have guilt feelings about the healthy development of their children. Are the two roles – wage earner and a good mother – mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, according to a just published study by Wills and Brauer (2012)


Drawing on previous theoretical and empirical work, we posit that maternal employment influences on child well-being vary across birth cohorts. We investigate this possibility by analyzing longitudinal data from a sample of children and their mothers drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. We introduce a series of age, cohort, and maternal employment interaction terms into multilevel models predicting child well-being to assess whether any potential short-term or long-term effects of early and current maternal 5employment vary across birth cohorts. Results indicate that maternal employment largely is inconsequential to child well-being regardless of birth cohort, with a few exceptions. For instance, children born in earlier cohorts may have experienced long-term positive effects of having an employed mother; however, as maternal employment became more commonplac in recent cohorts, these beneficial effects appear to have disappeared. e discuss theoretical and methodological implications of these findings.

A caveat does exist for some children.

“Our results do suggest that maternal employment in the second year after birth is associated with lower average reading score trajectories. Furthermore, children whose mothers work overtime, non-white children, children in low-income families, and children of non-married mothers appear to be especially affected by maternal employment during this stage of development.
These results lend support to the notion of a critical period of development during the early years of children’s lives that is especially consequential for language skills.”

Overall, the study suggests the guilt felt by working mothers is largely unwarranted. “For the average child negative outcomes associated with maternal employment are not an obstacle to overcome.”


Wills, Jeremiah B., Brauer, Jonathan R. (2012). “Have Children Adapted to Their Mothers Working, or Was Adaptation Unnecessary? Cohort Effects and the Relationship Between Maternal Employment and Child Well-Being.” Social Science Research 41,2:425-443.

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