The Effects of the Mother's Employment on the Family and the Child

Lois Wladis Hoffman, PhD
Professor Emerita, Department of Psychology
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

My talk is going to be on the effects of maternal employment on families and children, with the focus on children. I'm going to present a review of previous research but since I have just completed a large study on this topic I will be drawing also on data from this. The results of the study will be reported in a book, published by Cambridge Press, called Mothers at Work: Effects on Children's Well-being by Lois Hoffman and Lise Youngblade, with Rebekah Coley, Allison Fuligni, and Donna Kovacs. Most of the maternal employment research and my own study deal with school-aged children, so the bulk of my talk will be on that age group, but since there is currently a great deal of interest in infants and the impact of maternal employment and nonmaternal care during the early years, I will also summarize findings for that period.

Prior to the review itself, however, we need to place today's maternal employment in its social context. To understand its present effects on families and children, we need to understand how patterns of maternal employment have changed over the years, and how these changes have been accompanied by other social changes that interact with it.

Changing Employment Patterns

At the present time, most mothers in the United States are employed. This is not only true for mothers of school-aged children, as it has been for two decades, but it is also true for mothers of infants less than one-year-old. The pace with which maternal employment rates have increased to this point, however, is so rapid that many people fail to realize its prevalence. Furthermore, attempts to understand its effects often ignore the fact that this change is part of a whole complex of social changes. Both employed mothers and homemakers today live in a very different environment than their counterparts forty or even twenty years ago.

Table 1. Labor Force Participation Rates of Mothers with children under 18, 1946-1996 and 1940

1940 8.6%
1946 18.2%
1956 27.5%
1966 35.8%
1976 48.8%
1986 62.5%
1996 70.0%

There are few social changes that are so easy to document as the increased employment of mothers in the United States. The steady rise in maternal employment rates over the years is clearly illustrated in Table 1. The pattern, rare in 1940, had become modal by 1977. By 1996, seventy percent of the married mothers with children under eighteen were in the labor force.

Table 2. Labor Force Participation Rates for Wives, Husband Present by age of youngest child, 1975-1995

1975 1985 1995
1 year or younger 30.8 49.4 59.0
2 years 37.1 54.0 66.7
3 years 41.2 55.1 65.5
4 years 41.2 59.7 67.7
5 years 44.4 62.1 69.6
6-13 51.8 68.2 74.9
14-17 53.5 67.0 79.6

Maternal employment rates still differ by age of the youngest child, but this difference has diminished over the years as the greatest recent increases have occurred among married mothers of infants and preschoolers. The rate of employment for married mothers of infants one or under almost doubled between 1975 and 1995, from 30.8% to 59.0% (Table 2). As Table 3 shows, in 1960 less than 19% of all married mothers of preschoolers were employed, but by 1996, that rate had jumped to 62.7%.

Table 3. Labor Force Participation Rates for Mothers by marital status and age of youngest child, 1960-1996

Married Widowed, divorced,
Never married
6-17 <6 6-17 <6 6-17 <6

1960 39.0 18.6 65.9 40.5 (NA) (NA)
1970 49.2 30.3 66.9 52.2 (NA) (NA)
1980 61.7 45.1 74.6 60.3 67.6 44.1
1990 73.6 58.9 79.7 63.6 69.7 48.7
1996 76.7 62.7 80.6 69.2 71.8 55.1

Table 3 also indicates another change over the years. Whereas in 1960, employed mothers were more likely to be from single-parent families, this difference has now vanished. For single mothers who have been married, the present employment rates are slightly higher than those of currently married mothers, but for never-married mothers, employment rates are notably lower than for either of the others.

These statistics document a major social change in the United States. But changes of this magnitude do not occur in a vacuum; the change in maternal employment rates have been accompanied by many other changes in family life. Family size is smaller, modern technology has considerably diminished the amount of necessary housework and food preparation, women are more educated, marriages are less stable, life expectancy has increased and youthfulness has been extended, expectations for personal fulfillment have expanded, and traditional gender-role attitudes have been modified and are less widely held. In addition, women's roles have been reconceptualized, childrearing orientations are different, and the adult roles for which children are being socialized are not the same as previously.

In considering the research on the effects of maternal employment, it is important to keep these interrelated social changes in mind. Much of the maternal employment research is built on data that were collected in the 1950's, but it is not reasonable to assume that findings from that period apply today. Some of the effects suggested by earlier studies are not found in more recent research because of changes in family patterns or in the larger society.

Review of the Research

The research over the last forty years shows that the mother's employment status is not so robust a variable that the simple comparison of the children of employed and nonemployed mothers will reveal meaningful differences. Relationships have had to be examined with attention to other variables that moderated effects; particularly important were social class, the mother's marital status, whether the employment was full- or part-time, the parents' attitudes, and the child's gender. (Effects are different in the middle class than in the lower class and different for boys than for girls.)

In addition, however, the path between the mother's employment status and child outcomes is a long one, there are many steps in between. To understand how maternal employment affects the child, you have to understand how it affects the family because it is through the family that effects take place. Previous research, as well as my own recent study, indicate that the particular aspects of the family that are affected by the mother's employment status and, in turn, affect the child, are the father's role, the mother's sense of well-being, and the parents' parenting styles -- that is, how they interact with their children and the goals they hold for them.

In my review of the research, I'm going to start with a summary of the research which has examined the direct relationship between the mother's employment status and child outcomes and then concentrate on the three aspects of family life that seem to carry the effects: the father's role, the mother's state of well being, and parent-child interaction patterns. Since findings from my recent study will be reported throughout my talk, I'll give you a brief description of it.

The sample is a socio-economically heterogeneous one of third and fourth grade children and their families residing in a large industrial city in the Midwest. It includes one-parent families as well as two-parent, African-American and European American. Because we were interested in effects of the mother's employment status itself, that is -- the effects of having an employed mother in the family -- and not in transitional employment, we selected for analysis only families where the mother's employment status had been stable for at least three years. We also dropped from analysis children who were not living with their mothers. The final sample had 400 families. The data collected were extensive and included questionnaires from mothers, fathers, and children; personal interviews with mothers and children; standard achievement test scores provided by the schools, teachers' ratings of the children's social and academic competence, and ratings by classroom peers of their behavior and how much they were liked. I'm going to refer to this study as the Michigan study because it was conducted by staff and students at the University of Michigan but the site of the research was not in Michigan.

Differences Between Children of Employed and Nonemployed Mothers

Many of the studies that have compared the children of employed and nonemployed mothers on child outcome measures such as indices of cognitive and socioemotional development have failed to find significant differences. The research that has shown reasonably consistent differences has examined the relationships within subgroups based on social class and gender. Patterns that have been revealed over the years include the following:

  1. Daughters of employed mothers have been found to have higher academic achievement, greater career success, more nontraditional career choices, and greater occupational commitment.

  2. Studies of children in poverty, in both two-parent and single-mother families, found higher cognitive scores for children with employed mothers as well as higher scores on socioemotional indices.

  3. A few earlier studies found that sons of employed mothers in the middle class showed lower school performance and lower I.Q. scores during the grade school years than full-time homemakers. About ten years ago, there were three separate studies that looked at that relationship; two of them found no difference, but the third also found lower scores for sons of employed mothers in the middle-class.

    We found no indication of this in the Michigan study. In fact, we found the opposite. In our study, the children of employed mothers obtained higher scores on the three achievement tests, for language, reading, and math, across gender, socioeconomic status, and marital status, middle-class boys included. It was our most robust findings for the child outcome differences. And yes, we controlled on the mother's education.

  4. Previous research has also found some social adjustment differences between children with employed and nonemployed mothers, but with less consistency. Daughters of employed mothers have been found to be more independent, particularly in interaction with their peers in a school setting, and to score higher on socioemotional adjustment measures. Results for sons have been quite mixed and vary with social class and with how old the children were when they were tested. One finding from the 1970's was that in the blue-collar class, sons of employed mothers did well academically but there was a strain in the father-son relationship. This was interpreted as reflecting the more traditional gender-role attitudes in the blue collar class. The mother's employment was seen as a sign that the father was an inadequate bread-winner, and if the fathers helped out with housework and child care, they resented it. We did not find this at all and it may reflect the change over the years in gender-role attitudes in the working-class -- the less stereotype views becoming more pervasive across class.

    The other social adjustment findings from the recent Michigan study were generally consistent with previous results but extended them. Daughters with employed mothers, across the different groups, showed more positive assertiveness as rated by the teacher (that is, they participated in class discussions, they asked questions when instructions were unclear, they were comfortable in leadership positions), and they showed less acting-out behavior. They were less shy, more independent and had a higher sense of efficacy. Working-class boys also showed more positive social adjustment when their mothers were employed, and this was true for both one-parent and two-parent families. For the middle-class boys, although their academic scores were higher, there was little evidence of social adjustment benefits from their mothers' employment. In fact, there was some evidence that those with employed mothers showed more acting-out behavior than the sons of full-time homemakers.

  5. There is one more result from previous research which was also found in our study: Sons and daughters of employed mothers have less traditional gender-role attitudes. However, in our research, we used two different measures of gender-role attitudes: one tapped the child's views about whether or not men could do things that were traditionally considered part of women's domain (e.g, take care of children, use a sewing machine, teach school); the other tapped the child's view about whether or not women were capable of doing activities that were traditionally considered part of the male domain (e.g., fix a car, climb a mountain, fly a plane). [The measure consisted of a long list of activities and occupations some of which were male-typed, some female typed, and some neutral. For each, they were asked "Who can--?" They had to choose as their answer women, men, or both. We then constructed two scales, one tapping whether they thought only men could do the male-typed things and the other measuring whether they thought only women could do the female-typed things.]

    Girls with employed mothers were more likely than girls whose mothers were full-time homemakers to indicate that women as well as men could do the activities that are usually associated with men; that is, employed mothers' daughters saw women as more competent in the traditionally male domain than the homemakers' daughters did. This result held for girls in two-parent homes and girls in one-parent homes. For boys, however, employment status was not related to the measure of women's competence to do male activities. On the other hand, in two-parent families, both sons and daughters of employed mothers felt that men could do the female activities, while those with full-time homemakers did not, but this was true only in two-parent families. Subsequent analysis showed that the reason it was only found in two parent families is that, it was carried by the fact that, in the two parent families, fathers' with employed wives were more active in traditionally female tasks and in child care. Thus, maternal employment was linked to the less stereotyped view of what men can do because of the effect of maternal employment on the father's role and, in the absence of a father, the effect did not occur.

The Father's Role

Now the father's role has long been viewed as an important mediator of the link between the mother's employment status and child outcomes. The finding that when mothers are employed, fathers are more active in household tasks and child care was reported in the 1950's and repeatedly through the years. Further, evidence has been provided which suggests that the father's role-sharing is an effect of maternal employment and not just a selective factor. Even when the researcher controls on gender-role attitudes, this effect is found, and the increased involvement of fathers in household tasks and child care is reported by mothers as a change that occurred when they re-entered the labor force. However, two studies, one by Nan Crouter at Penn State and the Michigan study, found that the greater involvement of fathers with children is confined to the functional interactions. Fathers in employed mother families, in general, are not more active in leisure/fun interaction. However, there is an interesting gender effect: fathers in single-wage families interact more with sons than daughters, but fathers in dual-wage families interact with sons and daughters equally.

The father's role was a major variable in the Michigan study and a clear link was shown to daughters' better academic performance and to their greater sense of efficacy. In addition, although maternal employment was directly related to daughters' views that women are competent in activities generally seen as male activities, higher father involvement increased this effect. And the view that women are competent was a major link to girls sense of efficacy and test scores. The fathers' higher involvement in child care, the merging of roles there, was also related directly to both boys' and girls' test scores. The amount of time fathers spent with children in leisure/fun activities, on the other hand, showed no relationship to test scores for either boys or girls.

Thus, there is a path from the mother's employment status to the father's role to the children's academic performance. In accommodation to the mother's employment, fathers take on a larger share of the household tasks and child care. Their higher participation in child care operates to increase the academic competence of both boys and girls, but particularly for girls. We also found a direct link from the mother's employment itself for girls across class and marital status: When mothers are employed, girls view women as more competent and this view mediated the girls' own higher sense of efficacy and their academic performance as rated by teachers as well as by the test scores.

The Mother's Sense of Well-being

The second aspect of family life that is often seen as linking the mother's employment status to effects on the child is the mother's sense of well-being, and numerous studies have compared employed mothers to full-time homemakers on various indices of mental health and life satisfaction. Most of this research has found a higher level of satisfaction and morale, and lower scores on stress indicators and measures of depressive mood among the employed.

But, while the bulk of the research on employment status and mothers' mental health has found higher morale among employed mothers, some investigators found no significant differences. However, when you sort out which studies find that employed mothers have higher morale and which studies find no difference, it turns out that the studies that find no difference were conducted with middle-class women. None of these studies find the morale of the full-time homemakers higher in either class. We found none and these same conclusions are reported in other reviews. But some studies have found no difference, and all of these were conducted with middle-class mothers. Now this class difference may seem strange. You would think that employment was more likely to up the mothers' morale in the middle class because middle-class jobs are more interesting. But the fact is that the mental health advantage of employment is more consistently found in working class or poverty samples. For working-class women, studies show that the satisfactions from employment are not from the job per se but from the increased social support and stimulation provided by co-workers, the marked advantages that their wages bring to their families, and the greater sense of control they feel over their lives. (In our study, it was the third -- employment gave them a sense of control over their lives-- that was particularly important.)

This social class difference is important because the research looking at the mother's employment status and child outcomes has also shown more consistent advantages of maternal employment for children in the working and poverty classes than in the middle class, particularly for boys. So a viable hypothesis is that the greater advantage of maternal employment for working-class children is because of its more positive effect on the mother's sense of well-being.

Furthermore, the possibility that the mother's well-being carries the relationship between maternal employment and child outcomes is bolstered by the fact that there is a large body of research demonstrating a positive relationship between maternal mental health and both more effective parenting and children's cognitive and emotional adjustment.

We explored the role of maternal well-being in the Michigan study and found that employment did show a positive health advantage in the working class for both single and married mothers. (And in the poverty class.) Employed mothers had lower scores on a measure of depressive mood (the CES-D) and higher scores on a measure of positive morale. No relationship between employment status and either measure was found in the middle-class. We also found that, in the working class, employed mothers were less likely than full-time homemakers to use either authoritarian or permissive parenting styles and more likely to use a style called authoritative. Authoritative parenting refers to a pattern in which the parents exercise control, but provide explanations rather than relying on power assertive controls and harsh discipline. In addition, employed mothers in the working class indicated a higher frequency of positive interactions with their children than did the full-time homemakers. The analysis also indicated that the relationship between the mother's employment and her parenting was carried by the mother's sense of well-being. Furthermore, the parenting variables were related to child outcomes. For example, the permissiveness of the married working-class homemakers was associated with acting out behavior in their sons, and authoritarian control was related to problem behavior in daughters.

Childrearing Patterns

So this brings us to the third route by which the mother's employment status can affect outcomes for school-aged children --- through differences in childrearing. A number of researchers have suggested that the childrearing dimension which includes encouragement of independence, maturity demands, and autonomy granting is particularly important. This is a dimension that can encompass in its extreme overprotection, on the one hand, and neglect on the other. Previous research has presented some evidence that employed mothers encourage independence in their children more than nonemployed mothers do. The encouragement of independence is consistent with the situational demands of the dual role since it enables the family to function more effectively in the mother's absence. Urie Bronfenbrenner has suggested that encouraging independence and granting children autonomy may have a negative effect on boys because it increases the influence of the peer group which, for boys, is more likely to be counter to adult standards. The encouragement of independence and autonomy in girls, on the other hand, would have a positive effect since they are traditionally given too little encouragement for independence.

A number of studies in developmental psychology have documented a pattern of encouraging dependency in girls. Beverly Fagot, for example, has conducted a series of studies of toddlers, based on behavioral observations, which demonstrate this. In one set of studies, she shows that mothers of daughters reward dependency by responding too quickly to their bids for help, while mothers of boys are more likely to encourage them to work the problem out for themselves.

Such gender-based differences in childrearing, however, are less prevalent in employed-mother families. In the Michigan study, we found that, across social class, employed mothers in contrast with full-time homemakers, showed less differentiation between sons and daughters in their discipline style and in their goals for their children. We also found that employed mothers, compared to full-time homemakers, were more likely to cite independence as a goal for their daughters and less likely to indicate that "obedience" or "to be feminine" was their goal. And, mothers who cited the goal of obedience, or the goal "to be feminine", were more likely to have daughters who were shy, nonassertive in the classroom, and had a lower sense of efficacy, while citing the goal of independence showed the opposite effects.

The issue of supervision and monitoring and the concept of "latch key" children is associated with maternal employment, but only a few studies have examined the actual tie to maternal employment. Nan Crouter, at Penn State, with a sample of children from small communities and rural areas, found no relationship between the mother's employment status and how well children were monitored. However, she also found that when children were unmonitored, boys with employed mothers were the ones likely to show negative effects in conduct and school grades. In our urban sample, we found only one effect of maternal employment on supervision and monitoring: Boys in dual-wage working class families were more likely to be left unsupervised and unmonitored. Maternal employment was not related to supervision and monitoring in middle-class families, in single-mother families, or for working-class girls. Being left unsupervised, but monitored by phone, showed no negative effects, but being left unsupervised and unmonitored showed negative effects among lower income children.

Only a limited group of parenting variables have been examined over the years for their relationship to the mother's employment status. The Michigan study was the first to consider a broad range of parenting attitudes and behaviors to see if they provided a link between the mother's employment and child outcomes. I have already mentioned that, in the working-class, full-time homemakers used more authoritarian control, less authoritative control, and more permissiveness. In addition, across class and marital status, full-time homemakers used more authoritarian control and stronger discipline and stressed obedience as a goal for their children. These differences in parenting, in turn, related to a number of child outcomes. For example, the higher use of authoritative controls by employed mothers in the working class, a style in which the child is given reasons and explanations, was related to their children's higher academic performance, and the more punitive style of the homemakers predicted conduct problems in school.

Mothers also reported the frequencies of their interactions with their children over the previous week. In the middle class, the full-time homemakers indicated more frequent positive and educational activities with their children than the employed mothers; but in the working class, more frequent positive and educational activities with daughters were reported by the employed mothers and there was no difference for sons. However, on a measure of how often mothers expressed overt affection toward their children, employed mothers were higher across class and marital status. In addition, employed married mothers held higher educational goals for their children and this was related to children's test scores.

Now in these analyses, we control for many variables, including the mother's education, but it is possible that there are some self-selection factors involved nevertheless. Thus, it is possible, that mothers who elect to stay home and avoid employment, may be mothers who are particularly committed to obedience and that this difference may not only be a function of employment status but also a precursor. And similarly, higher educational goals for children may be a motivation for employment. We examined these possibilities in our analyses, and the data supported a direction of causality from the mothers' employment status to parenting styles to child outcomes, but there may also be some self-selection involved.

Maternal Employment and Nonmaternal Care During the Early Years

I'm going to turn now from my focus on school-aged children to discuss the research on maternal employment during the child's infancy and toddler years. This has been a topic of considerable interest and controversy.

Whereas most of the maternal employment research on older children has looked mainly at child outcomes, the research on infants and preschoolers has looked directly at parent-child interaction. This is because for infants and young children, valid outcome measures are difficult to obtain. These studies have looked at the quantity and quality of the mother-child interaction, the home environment, and the parent-child attachment relationship.

In general, findings indicate that full-time employed mothers spend less time with their infants and preschoolers than part-time and nonemployed mothers, but this effect diminishes with maternal education and with the age of the child. In addition, the effect is also less when the nature of the interaction is considered. Data indicate that employed mothers tend to compensate for their absence in the proportion of direct interaction and in the amount of time with the child during nonwork hours and on weekends. Several studies that used behavioral observations of mother-infant interaction showed that employed mothers were more highly interactive with their infants, particularly with respect to verbal stimulation. Some studies have examined the mothers' sensitivity in interactions with their infants and found no difference between the employed and nonemployed mothers.

A particularly active area of maternal employment research since 1980 has involved the comparison of dual-wage and single-wage families with respect to mother-infant attachment. In most of these studies, no significant differences were found. However, in research by Jay Belsky (and in a study by Barglow and his colleagues), although the majority of mother-infant attachments in the full-time employed-mother group was secure, the number of insecure attachments was higher when the mothers were employed full-time. Furthermore, in reviews that combined subjects across studies, full-time employed mothers were more likely than part-time employed and nonemployed mothers to have insecurely attached infants.

The results showing an association between early maternal employment and mother-infant attachment have received a great deal of attention in the media. A problem with this research, however, is that the measure of attachment used is a laboratory measure called the Strange Situation. The measure involves having the mother and toddler enter a room furnished like a waiting room, with children's toys. A young woman comes in and then the mother leaves. There are two maternal departures, and reunions a few minutes later. This measure was set up as a strange situation to observe how the toddler acts toward the mother when anxious. Although this measure has proven useful over the years in predicting subsequent childhood behavior, it's validity had not been established for employed-mother families. The problem is that the situation may not be anxiety-producing for a child who has experienced regular nonmaternal care, thus the behavior may not be a basis on which to judge the attachment relationship. In the studies that found more insecure attachment for the children with full-time employed mothers, the type of insecure attachment found was what is called the "avoidant" pattern. The avoidant infant is one who seems to be independent. This independence may be a defense against anxiety as it has been shown to be in earlier research, but it may also be an appropriate behavior if the child is not anxious in the situation; thus, distinguishing between "avoidant" insecurity and lack of anxiety can be difficult.

The most recent and most extensive investigation of these issues is an on-going study of the effects of nonmaternal care in early childhood conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Development. This is a collaborative effort involving multiple sites and a large team of prominent researchers. Data have been presented which support the validity of the Strange Situation measure as used in this study. In this study, the amount of nonmaternal care (whether the infant received more than thirty hours a week or less than ten) was not related to the security of the attachment, nor was the child's age at onset of the mother's employment. The high quality of this investigation, and the fact that the consortium of investigators included researchers from both sides of this highly politicized issue, may have led to more precise coding operations which eliminated the uncertainties sometimes involved in differentiating less anxiety from insecure-avoidant attachment. The results of this study indicated, that the quality of the mother-child interaction, and particularly her sensitivity to the child's needs, affects the security of the attachment, and the amount of nonmaternal care does not. Neither does the mother's employment status nor the age of the child when the mother resumed work.

This investigation has been following the children since infancy, and their latest reports are based on the data obtained when the children are three-years old. Previous research on the effects of day care suggested that although day care experience was often associated with higher cognitive competence, it was also associated with less compliance and more assertiveness with peers, both positive and negative. The NICHD study found that on multiple measures of the child's negativity and behavior problems the major variables were again the mother's sensitivity and her psychological adjustment. Both higher quality of nonmaternal care, and greater experience in groups with other children, predicted socially competent behavior. It was also the case, however, that more time in child care and less stable care predicted problematic and noncompliant behavior at 24 months. On the whole, the results of this investigation have indicated that the home environment is the major influence on child outcomes, but the quality and stability of the nonmaternal care does have an effect.


Twenty years ago, it would have seemed strange to give a talk on maternal employment and not focus on it as a social problem, but there is little in these data to suggest it is. 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 behavioral conduct and social adjustment, and the higher sense of competence and effectiveness in daughters. On the whole, these research results suggest that 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. In the working class, employed mothers indicated a higher level of well-being than full-time homemakers and this, in turn, affects their parenting in positive ways. Even in the middle-class, where employed mothers did not show a higher level of well-being, neither did they show a lower one. While the quality and stability of nonmaternal care for infants and young children is important, the mother's employment itself does not seem to have the negative effects often proclaimed. We are dealing here with a change in society, and while there are adjustment yet to be made -- more affordable, quality day care; after-school programs; more liberal postpartum leave policies -- even these are slowly responding to the realities of Parenthood in America today.

Copyright © 1998 Lois Wladis Hoffman.

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