Fairfax Media

No developmental differences between children of working mothers and stay at home mums

Mother’s work could be more accepted with fathers more involved in care giving, say researchers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2016, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 December, 2016, 5:04pm

By Miki Perkins

Are you a busy, juggling, occasionally guilt-stricken working mama? Good news!

Going back to work early is not going to harm your child’s development, according to new research spanning three industrialised countries, including Australia.

Researchers found there was little cognitive or behavioural difference in children beginning school whose mothers had returned to work, and those whose mums had not been employed during the two years after childbirth.

Based on representative studies of thousands of children born in the early 2000s in Australia, the UK and the US, the study found early maternal employment may even be beneficial in low-income families, according to findings published on the Child and Family Blog, a joint initiative from the University of Cambridge and Princeton University.

It paints a different picture to early “worrying” research on children of the 1970s and 80s, which found children’s behavioural and early learning skills suffered when mothers returned to work in the first year or two.

So why is it so different?

It could be that mother’s work is more accepted and fathers are more involved in care giving, writes study author Assistant Professor Caitlin McPherran Lombardi, from Connecticut University.

“Mothers’ employment has broad benefits for society. It supports women’s careers, encourages balanced gender roles, and increases families’ economic resources,” writes Lombardi.

Before she had children, Charlotte Grills had a rewarding role as a diabetes clinical nurse consultant at St Vincent’s Public Hospital in Sydney, Australia.

She wanted to return to part-time work after each of her three children, into a team with family-friendly managers.

Financially, yes, her growing family would benefit from the extra income. But that wasn’t Charlotte’s primary motivation.

“Work is really important for my identity. I think when you have children you can start to lose a sense of yourself and this has been highlighted as I’ve had each child,” Ms Grills says.

“I missed adult conversations and adult interactions, being able to use my brain and progress my knowledge.”

Initially, she was unable to get a childcare place for her (then) 12-month-old son Harry at her preferred centre; the 125-year-old Richmond Creche and Kindergarten in Richmond.

This uncertainty made her return to work more difficult. She worried about how her son would react when separated from her and the likelihood of him picking up childhood lurgies in a new environment.

But Harry finally got a place at Richmond Creche and Charlotte felt comfortable leaving him (and his siblings Gus, now 3, and Clementine, 18 months) with its caring educators.

Richmond Creche was founded in 1891, initially to provide childcare for sole mothers or those whose partners were absent servicemen and needed to return to work.

Although Richmond has rapidly gentrified, the creche - which takes children from three months old - still prioritises sole parents and families from disadvantaged backgrounds on its waiting list, says assistant director Maddie O’Rourke.

Going back to work early was common amongst mothers in all three countries, the study found. Mothers from Australia and the UK were slower to return (60 per cent were back to work by the child’s second birthday) than American mothers, perhaps because of more generous parental leave schemes.

In Australia, mothers can claim up to 18 weeks’ leave at the minimum wage. In the UK six weeks of maternity leave are paid. The US has no federal paid maternity leave, and limited unpaid leave for 12 weeks for eligible working mothers.

Researchers examined the number of hours mothers worked, their earnings and the numbers of hours that children spent in childcare but saw few patterns that altered the relationship between early maternal employment and a child’s later skills.

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Guilty working mum? Relax. Your kids will be fine