Panel Paper: Early Maternal Employment and Children's School Readiness in Contemporary Families

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 10:05 AM
Georgetown I (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Caitlin McPherran Lombardi and Rebekah Levine Coley, Boston College
The dramatic increase in maternal employment in recent decades has spurred a substantial body of research on mothers’ labor force participation and its associations with children’s health and well-being. A particular focus has been on women with newborns whose employment rates have rapidly increased from 21% in the labor market in 1968 to over 50% in every year since 1986 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). While most industrialized countries have responded to such trends with paid parental leave policies which provide income replacement and job protections, U.S. policy expansions have been significantly more limited with no federal paid parental leave and a limited federal unpaid parental leave policy. Lacking paid leave and job protection options, many new mothers in the U.S. return to work soon after childbirth, juggling the demands of employment and parenthood.

 Much of the past research on early maternal employment has utilized longitudinal survey studies with children born in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Based upon demographic shifts in the U.S., such as women’s increased employment and heightened responsibility for their families’ financial security, more readily available and higher quality child care, changing cultural attitudes about women’s work roles, and increased engagement among fathers in child rearing, we hypothesize that maternal employment may have different implications for children currently than it did a few decades ago, with dissimilar repercussions for children’s development.

 The goal of the current study was to delineate the repercussions of early maternal employment for children’s early developmental competencies, with a goal of testing economic and psychological theories regarding potential mechanisms linking maternal employment with children’s development, including time, money, and stress. Data were drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study– Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), a representative sample of children born in the U.S. in 2001. Children (n=10,100) were followed from 9 months until kindergarten entry.  Mother’s employment data were coded to assess the month of entry into employment following childbirth. Extensive, well-validated direct assessment and teacher report measures assessed children’s cognitive skills and behavioral functioning at kindergarten. 

 OLS regression models weighted with propensity scores and controlling for a rich array of maternal, family, and child characteristics suggest that early movements into employment following childbirth were not associated with developmental risks or benefits for children. While the descriptive data showed that the majority of mothers entered employment early and at high intensity, we found very little evidence of negative effects of this employment on children’s functioning. These neutral associations were not differentiated by mothers’ time away from children, maternal stress, or maternal wages from employment. However, as non-maternal household income decreased, maternal employment begun prior to 9 months was linked with higher cognitive skills while employment begun between 9 to 23 months was linked with lower conduct problems. Children from families with limited income from non-maternal work sources may achieve slight benefits from early maternal employment, whereas children from higher income families may suffer small detriments. The discussion will focus on work family policy implications.