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Working mums: Your children will be happy

Mother working on laptop with a child
Credit: iStock.com/sanjeri

Experiencing guilt about the impact of your job on your child? Well relax, new research suggests that the children of working mums are just as happy in adulthood as the children of stay-at-home mums.

The research which focused on the long term effects of mothers’ employment found maternal employment doesn’t affect children’s happiness in adulthood.

In fact, across 29 countries, the study Learning from Mum: Cross-National Evidence Linking Maternal Employment and Adult Children’s Outcomes analysed 100,000 men and women in two international surveys and found adult daughters raised by employed mothers are more likely to be employed, supervise others, and have higher earnings.

Compared to women whose mothers stayed home full time, women raised by an employed mother are 1.21 times more likely to be employed and 1.29 times more likely to supervise others at work.

Parents, especially mothers, are socialised to turn this into guilt and to assume they’re hurting their children, even though decades of research has failed to show any consistent negative effect of maternal employment on young children or adolescents, and our research shows clear positive effects on adult children.
Professor Kathleen McGinn

Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Kathleen McGinn, co-authored the study and says she and her colleagues Mayra Ruiz Castro and Elizabeth Long Lingo wanted to understand the adult outcomes both at work and at home, of sons and daughters raised by employed mothers and how they differed from those raised by mothers who stayed at home full time.

They found it even has an impact on how much housework women do.

“Employed women raised by employed mothers also spend less time on housework than their peers raised by stay-at-home mothers,” Professor McGinn says.

The researchers found that adult daughters of employed mothers reported significantly higher annual earnings, partially due to the fact that they spent more of their time working.

“The picture’s different for sons: their mothers’ employment status has no effect on adult sons’ employment, but men raised by employed mothers spend more time caring for family members than men raised by stay-at-home mothers.

“Sons’ employment is more likely to reflect their fathers’ employment, while daughters’ employment is more likely to reflect their mothers’ employment.”

Professor McGinn says the research did not show that children raised by employed mothers are happier. There were no significant associations between maternal employment and happiness, however being raised by an employed mother meant they were no less happy.

“This doesn’t mean children raised by employed mothers are happier — mothers’ employment status has no effect on adult children’s self-reported happiness:  men and women raised by employed mothers are just as happy - not happier and not less happy - than men and women raised by stay-at-home mothers.”  

Preliminary results from the research were shared in 2015 with some people questioning whether the results were related to the mothers’ education, income or type of occupation.

To ensure their findings could be replicated across both time and geography, they compared two cross-national surveys, the Family and Changing Gender Roles section of the International Social Survey Programme from 2002 and 2012, as well as the Generations and Gender Survey Core Questionnaire in the Generations and Gender Programme from 2002 through 2013.

“In the final study, we added a second data set from 11 countries that allowed us to test this - all of the results hold after controlling for mothers’ education,” Profession McGinn says.

“Daughters are more likely to be employed if their mother was also employed, regardless of mothers’ occupation or income. Daughters’ earnings are related to mothers’ earnings.”

Maternal employment has been closely linked to widely held beliefs that children’s outcomes are negatively affected by a mother’s paid employment.

Professor McGinn says research largely fails to support this belief.

“It’s hard to leave your children every day, even if you enjoy your job and your children are thriving,” she says.

“When you don’t enjoy your job, and during times when children are having problems, it’s even harder.  

“Parents, especially mothers, are socialised to turn this into guilt and to assume they’re hurting their children, even though decades of research has failed to show any consistent negative effect of maternal employment on young children or adolescents, and our research shows clear positive effects on adult children.

“I reflect on my own feelings the first day I dropped my daughter off at day care and the day we dropped her off at college — both hurt, but I never wondered whether it would be better if she was with me instead of going to college.

“As adult children of employed mums once told a group of employed mums: ‘We look up to you.  And we’re doing fine.’”

Key research findings from Learning from Mum: Cross-National Evidence Linking Maternal Employment and Adult Children’s Outcomes

  • Children of employed mothers hold more egalitarian gender attitudes.
  • Adult daughters, but not sons, of employed mothers are more likely to be employed.
  • If employed, daughters of working mothers are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility, work more hours and earn higher incomes
  • Mothers’ employment status influenced a broad spectrum of adult daughters’ – but not sons’ – employment outcomes.
  • Daughters raised by mothers who were employed spent less time on household tasks.
  • Sons raised by employed mothers spend more time each week caring for family members than sons raised by stay-at-home mothers.