Combining childrearing with work: Do maternal employment experiences compromise child development?

1 October 2009

CLS Director Professor Heather Joshi presented a paper on this question, at the International Population Conference in Morocco,1 October. It related the cognitive and behavioural development of school-age children to mothers’ employment in  babies’ first year. Evidence came from the British Cohort Study of 1970 in 2004, and a sample of children in the USA. The short answer is ‘not in this most recent British evidence’.

This paper, presented by CLS director Professor Heather Joshi at the International Population Conference in Morocco on 1 October, examines evidence on the cognitive and behavioural development of children of members of the British Cohort Study of 1970 and a parallel sample of children in the USA. On balance, the answer to the question that the paper’s title poses is ‘No’. It finds no evidence in Britain for mothers’ employment during the first year of the child’s life affecting these indicators of child development during school ages.

In the USA, a slightly poorer outcome appears on one aspect of reading - for mothers working full-time when their babies are under 1. This resembles findings in earlier data from Britain. The disappearance of this difference in Britain between children whose mothers work while they are babies and those  staying at home beyond the first birthday is likely to be linked to the continued extension of maternity leave in Britain during the 1990s.

The paper addresses a continuing concern, at least in English-speaking countries, that the combination of maternal employment, and hence non-parental responsibility for increasingly young children, may affect child welfare and development. The evidence presented is, on the whole, reassuring.

Co-written by Elizabeth Cooksey, Ohio State University, and Georgia Verropoulou, University of Piraeus, the paper was presented by Professor Joshi at the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population conference in Marrakesh. The three authors draw on data from the second generation studies of two cohort studies British Cohort Study of 1970 US National Longitudinal Study of Youth, 1979, and the British Cohort Study of 1970 The British mothers were all aged 34 when their children were assessed in 2004. The children had mostly been born in the 1990s. The US mothers ranged in age from 35-38 when their children were assessed in 2000, with the children having been born between1986 and 1996.

The paper explores whether the answer to the question posed depends on which aspects of cognitive and behavioural development are examined, and what type of work the mother undertakes. It looks specifically at the mother’s occupation in a child’s first year of life, rated on a spectrum from routine to complex, as well as whether the job is full or part-time. 

An earlier version of this research is available in
Cooksey, E., Joshi, H. and Verropoulou, G (2009) Does mothers’ employment affect children’s development? Evidence from the children of the British 1970 Birth Cohort and the American NLSY79. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies: International Journal Volume 1, Issue 1, 95-115