“No adverse effects”

The Society for Research in Child Development published an interesting study recently, tracking 1000 children from age 0 to 7. The purpose? To answer that age-old question of what effect maternal employment has on children’s outcomes.

The answer? As Babble quotes Jane Waldfoge, “the good news is that we can see no adverse effects.” There were downsides to moms working during the first year of a child’s life, but also some advantages later on.

That may not be a rallying cry for either side of the mommy wars (such as they are) but I think this neutral answer makes a lot of sense. The question of maternal employment and child outcomes is never going to produce the crystal clear answer many people assume (“every study out there shows it’s best if one parent stays home,” as a friend recently told me) for a few reasons:

* First, what is the “best” outcome? Doing best in school? Having the best health outcomes? Being happiest in life? Being closest as a family? Having a higher income? The answer at age 1, or 5, or 7 may not be the same as at 25 or 40. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article advanced the idea that almost nothing parents do within a normal band of parenting styles really matters in the long run.

* Mothers wind up out of the workforce for many reasons. Some women wish to put their full energies into raising their children. Others can’t get jobs that pay enough to cover childcare. You don’t have to be a social scientist to suspect that these two reasons may confuse the data. You can try to control for education and family income but…

* You can’t really control for income. A small percentage of families might enjoy the same standard of living whether mom works or not, but in most cases, a family with one income will have less money than a family with two incomes. Yes, taxes and childcare bills may eat up most of the second income for a few years. But not for the entire 20 years that a 2-kid family will have children at home. Kids need time, but they also need money. This confuses the data, too.

*  “Quality time” doesn’t vary too much among families. Looking at data from the American Time Use Survey, employed mothers and mothers who aren’t in the workforce don’t spend wildly different amounts of time on childcare as a primary activity. Certainly, employed mothers spend less. But the difference in interactive time is less than an hour a day for moms with kids under age 6.

Add all this together, and you can see how difficult it is to come out with the clear answer that many pundits would like. Life seldom features black-and-white narratives, and what is good for one family isn’t good for another. I think these nuances and different narratives make social science very interesting — even if they’re harder to compress into soundbites.

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