When Mothers Work Outside the Home
Please note that this section contains my personal notes from my readings on this topic.
From [amazon-product text="Whats Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life" type="text"]0553378252[/amazon-product]by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.; 2000 October 3
- The good news is that most babies do manage to bond with their mothers, regardless of her employment status. Attachment is a powerful instinct, once the necessary neural hardware is in place, and since most working parents make great efforts to spend the bulk of their nonworking hours with their young children, there actually are enough hours in the day (and evenings, weekends, holidays, and maternity leave) for working mothers to be the most consistent, attentive, and loving caregiver in their baby’s life. Nor is it necessarily bad for a young baby to form his primary attachment to someone other than his mother, if the regular caregiver is a loving, responsive, and stable figure in his life. Children can, and generally do, form attachments to several adults over the first few years, and as long as these relationships are a source of security and healthy interaction, they are a positive influence. (page 308)
- Researchers began studying for effects of maternal employment in a variety of aspects of children’s behavior. The findings have been mixed…. Given all the controversy, as well as the great importance of the issue, the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in 1991 embarked on a massive nationwide research project to try to settle it. Fifteen sites were established, and more than 1,300 children from all major ethnic groups and socioeconomic strata were enrolled at birth for a long-term study of the impact of early child care on children’s emotional and cognitive growth… The main findings to emerge thus far are encouraging for those who use early child care. In every analysis, family factors have been found to play a much greater role than child-care factors in determining how young children turn out. Thus, in contrast to previous studies, fifteen-month-old infants were equally likely to be securely attached to their mothers regardless of their daily care situation — in exclusive maternal care, paternal care, babysitter care, or in family- or center- based day care. What did matter in determining attachment security was mother style — how sensitive the mother is to her baby’s needs during their time together. In other words, insensitive mothers tend to have less securely attached infants, whether or not they work.
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Similar finding emerged at two and three years of age. The main factors determining whether toddlers exhibited behavioral problems were all family-related, and in particular the mother’s psychological adjustment and sensitivity toward her child. The study found “little evidence that early, extensive, and continuous non-maternal care was related to problematic child behavior, in contrast to results from previous works.” But while nonmaternal care per se had little effect, the quality of that care was found to exert a small but significant influence over toddlers’ behavior. Children in smaller groups, with a higher caregiver:child ratio, and with more positive, responsive caregivers were more compliant and socially competent than those in poorer child-care situations.
The latest research, then, suggests that children do not suffer emotionally when their mothers return to work during their first year of life. In most circumstances, working parents exert as much influence over their young children’s development as nonworking parents. There are, however, some important caveats that emerge from the data. One is that the NICHD study is still in progress, and it is possible that adverse effects of child care will emerge later in the preschool and middle-childhood years, as several earlier studies reported. Another finding is that, while child care per se plays a rather small role in children’s emotional adjustment, it can interact with poor parenting to put some children at greater risk for emotional problems… Yet another caveat is that boys and girls do not fare equally well in nonmaternal care. Several studies, including the NICHD project, have found that social-emotional development is more likely to suffer in boys, and to benefit in girls, when their mothers are employed during the first few years. There are all sorts of speculations about why boys might be more vulnerable — greater immaturity, less attention by nonmaternal caregivers, or the possibility that working mothers favor their sons to a lesser degree than more traditional, nonworking mothers — but this finding does give one pause when considering child care for infant sons.
In spite of all the controversy, there is one thing that researchers agree on, and that is the importance of child care quality. High quality care can ensure children’s emotional health, improve their social competence, and in particular, advance their cognitive development, as is further seen in Chapter 17. According to recent estimates, however, the vast majority of young American children are in care that does not meet this standard. Most caregiving situations have too many children, with too few adults, a dismal physical environment, a lack of developmentally appropriate play materials, insufficient language stimulation, inadequate caregiver training, and a high rate of caregiver turnover that can be very emotionally unsettling for infants and young children. Parents obviously need to be very careful about choosing child care, and we a society need to do much more to bring the quality of child care in the United States up to the standards of many European nations, where high quality day care has been proven beneficial to children’s emotional and cognitive development.
– pages 308-311