Recently you may have seen a few headlines announcing that having a mother who goes out to work confers benefits on her children: the daughters earn more and do less housework, the sons share more of the burden of domestic responsibility.
I work, and have always worked, full time in paid employment and have children aged 4 and 6 years old. Like a lot of mothers in paid work, especially those who work long hours, I often battle with a creeping sense of guilt that I should be spending more time with the children. As they begin to attend school, this has crept into a slightly different sort of guilt about my lack of contribution to school life. So like many women I was pleased to see a quality research study and press coverage which emphasised the potential benefits associated with having a mum in paid work.
What I was less pleased by was the way in which this result was quickly being turned into a stick with which to beat mothers who aren’t employed. You don’t need me to remind you that equality of opportunity does not mean uniformity of choice. We are aiming for a society in which multiple life choices should be accepted and supported as having equal value. As the authors of the original study themselves say: “we hope the findings from our research will promote respect for the spectrum of choices women and men make at home and at work”. In some countries the emphasis may be particularly placed on supporting mothers into paid work, but in others, such as the UK, we are in danger of de-valuing the contribution made by mothers who don’t have careers. An example comes in this quote from a commentator in the Guardian:
[these findings are] a signal to women who don’t [work] that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother
So while I am personally pleased by this finding, I feel a resposibility to my friends who have chosen not to return their jobs, to unpick the study a little bit to see whether its findings really justify taking such a hard line as this. And they don’t.
First, having a ‘working mother’ is defined in the study as answering yes to the question: “Did your mother ever work for pay for as long as one year, after you were born and before you were fourteen?” This means that the definition of a working mother is loose at best. This isn’t a criticism of the paper – they were working from a huge international survey and had no control over question design, which probably had to be simple to avoid making the survey too long or the questions and answers too difficult to translate. But we certainly can’t construe from this that, for example, mothers ought to go back to paid work while their children are young. In fact we know nothing about whether there is an optimum time in your child’s development in which to be in employment, nor an optimum amount of hours to do (e.g. full time, part time).
Second, the survey data do not, and cannot, take into account reasons why a mother had a job or did not. There is a control for level of education, so the relationship isn’t just about capacity for employment (i.e. more educated mothers have good jobs and have more educated children, who also have good jobs and get paid well). But there’s no way to tell whether the mothers who didn’t work for pay made that choice, for example, because their child had a disability, or emotional or behavioural problem that made it more important for them to be at home. Or whether the mother’s didn’t work outside the home because they themselves had difficulties, such as mental health problems, which prevented them from working. This kind of study cannot delve into whether the choice to stay at home might be more suitable, and beneficial, for a specific group of mothers and children.
Third, the interpretation of the survey results in the mainstream press (though not, it must be emphasised, by the authors themselves) has loaded the findings with a value which simply isn’t a part of the original data. For example, the finding that daughters of mothers who are in paid work, earn more, is portrayed as unequivocally a good thing. While we might mostly feel that we’d be pleased to get paid a bit more, or to be promoted, we musn’t forget that earning power is not a marker of well being, intellect, moral character or value to the community. In fact the opposite argument is also often made – that the highest paid members of our society are also the weakest contributors. You only have to check in with modern UK attitudes to the banking sector to see this association in action.
In my experience, mothers (and fathers) who are not currently in paid employment are nearly all providing enriching role models to their children of a different sort. They volunteer in the classrooms of our under-resourced state schools, not to mention providing extra egg boxes and cheering at school sports days on behalf of working parents who struggle to meet these commitments. They are powerhouses in our charitable and community organisations – as in the case of one mother I know who has virtually single-handedly led a successful campaign to turn her local park from a wasteland of discarded hypodermic needles, into a family-friendly community space. Another does welding in her spare time! My own mother ran a business re-upholstering armchairs in our basement during my primary school years. I would brim with pride if my daughters chose to undertake any such activities when they are adults. I want them to be happy, I want them to contribute to society, and I want them to be successful by their own definition. I expect most parents would say the same.
This blog post is not in anyway intended to criticise the original research – which is excellent – nor to undermine it’s beneficial impact on mothers who work, or who want to work, for pay. But let’s also be careful that we don’t use this finding, or others like it, as a way to diminish the choices made by other people. As the original authors say:
Whether Moms or Dads stay at home or are employed, part time or full time, children benefit from exposure to role models offering a wide set of alternatives for leading rich and rewading lives. Giving childen opportunities to see and know people – men and women – making lots of different choices at work and at home will help children see lots of options for success in their own lives at work and at home
NB: this post was edited on 30.06.2015 in response to comments that the phrase ‘working mothers’ implies that mothers who are at home with their children don’t work. This implication was not intended.