Good News for Working Mothers: Going Back to Work Doesn't Harm the Kids

Filed under: Work Life, In The News, Research Reveals: Babies, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids

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It's OK to go back to work. Seriously. Credit: Getty Images

It's settled: Working mothers don't need to feel guilty about going back to work.

A review of nearly 70 studies conducted over 50 years shows that children whose mothers went back to work within three years of their birth were no more likely to have academic or behavioral problems than children of stay-at-home-moms, according to a report in the Psychological Bulletin.

In fact, having a working mother may be beneficial.

"We did see some suggestions that employment was favorable," Rachel Lucas-Thompson, assistant professor of psychiatry at Macalester College and the report's lead author, tells ParentDish. "We did find that overall employment was associated with decreases in internalizing behavior and increases in teacher rating of achievement."

Lucas-Thompson conducted the study with colleagues at the University of Irvine, California, looking at data gathered between 1960 and 2010.

The children who most clearly benefited from their mother's employment came from single-parent or low-income families. Those kids had better academic and intelligence scores and fewer behavioral problems than children whose mothers didn't work, the report says, perhaps because the increased income meant the family had more resources and fewer money stresses.

That benefit didn't extend to higher-income families. Those children were more likely to have achievement dips later on if their mothers worked full time, researchers found.

Timing mattered, as well.

"We did find that there were differences in these outcomes based on whether we looked at the first year alone versus across the first three years," Lucas-Thompson says.

The children of women who went back to full-time work within a year of giving birth were more likely to have achievement issues and conduct or aggression issues later on, than if their mothers worked part-time or not at all. If a woman waited until the second or third year of her child's life, the likelihood her child would develop such problems evaporated.

"These findings could support moves toward more flexible parental leave policies," Lucas-Thompson says.

In all cases, the negative associations in performance and behavior were very slight, Lucas-Thompson tells ParentDish.

"Mothers do not need to be overly concerned if they want to or need to return to work early in their child's life," she says.

The researchers only considered studies that measured school performance through achievement test scores, school grades, intelligence test scores and teachers' ratings of cognitive abilities. They categorized behavioral issues as "internalizing behaviors" such as anxiety and withdrawal and "externalize behaviors" such as aggression and conduct problems. They relied on the assessments of parents, teachers and, in the case of older children, the students themselves.

"Hopefully this gives working mothers some comfort," Lucas-Thompson says.

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