Are there Negative Effects for Working Mothers

By Sara Ipatenco
Woman working at home with a baby on her lap.
Woman working at home with a baby on her lap.

The financial reality for many families is that they need two incomes to survive. As of March 2010, 71.3 percent of mothers were members of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While several studies suggest that there are modest negative effects on mothers who work outside the home, there is other research to suggest that these effects depend on other factors.

Effects on Mothers Themselves

Mothers who have jobs outside of the home tend to be happier and healthier than their stay-at-home counterparts, the American Psychological Association notes. These positive effects, such as fewer symptoms of depression, can be seen in part-time working mothers and full-time working mothers. One possible reason why this is so is because working mothers add income to the family, which can reduce stress related to paying bills, according to Diane F. Halpern and Fanny M. Cheung, authors of "Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family."

Maternity Leave Effects

Longer maternity leaves can have positive effects on the health of new moms. A 2005 article published in the "Southern Economic Journal" reports that delaying the return to work can result in fewer symptoms of depression. The same study notes that women who return to work have higher rates of gynecologic problems, breast infections and respiratory infections. New mothers who delay their return to work are also more likely to breastfeed their babies for longer periods of time, according to a 2011 article published in "Pediatrics."

Cognitive and Behavioral Effects on Children

A 2010 study from South Dakota State University found that children with working mothers can experience cognitive delays compared to children whose mothers don't work. The same study also suggests that 32 percent of children who attend out-of-home child care have behavioral problems compared to zero percent of children who don't attend out-of-home child care. However, the opposite can also be true. Children who attend child care often perform better on cognitive tasks than children who stay home. A 2005 study published in "Developmental Psychology" found that more negative cognitive effects occur if a mother works during her child's first year of life, however. Some other factors that could account for these different research findings include the education level of the mother and the amount of income in the family.

Effects on the Family

Children with mothers who work full-time or who work nonstandard hours, such as the night shift, are more likely to have higher body mass indexes, according to a 2012 study published in "Child Development." In fact, the study found that for every 5.3 months that a mother worked, her child's BMI increased by about 10 percent of the standard deviation, which averages out to about a pound of weight gain every five months. These effects are most noticeable when a child is in fifth and sixth grades. Daughters of working moms are more likely to be independent, and children of employed moms also have less specific gender role attitudes, notes Lois Wladis Hoffman, a psychology professor from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

A Bit of Perspective

Simply working outside the home -- or not -- isn't the sole factor in potential cognitive, behavioral and physical health problems. Many children with a working mother never experience any negative effects. When considering the potential negatives, it's also necessary to consider other factors that can contribute to a child's well-being. For example, a child living in poverty, with or without a working mom, is more likely to have cognitive and behavioral problems, according to Halpern and Cheung.

About the Author

Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.