One of the most studied aspects of childhood in recent decades is early, non-maternal childcare. Research tends to show benefits for a child’s cognitive development but not for emotional wellbeing and behaviour. Now a study has found that youngsters are less likely to succeed at school if their mothers return to work within a year of their birth.
Researchers at Macalester College, Minnesota, and the University of California reached this conclusion by reviewing 69 separate studies carried out worldwide since the 1960s. They also found significant differences according to class and family structure.
In fact, children of middle class and two-parent families are likely to do worse at school if their mothers return to work during the first three years.
This is because in wealthier families, the benefits of a mother working ‘may not outweigh the negative effects of decreased maternal attention and supervision and risk of poor-quality child-care arrangements’.
However, the researchers found that women from low-income or single parent families [groups which must overlap to a large degree] tend to help their children by returning to work since this provides additional income and reduces stress. This effect allowed the researchers to say:
‘Taken together, the results suggest maternal employment early in a child’s life is not commonly associated with decreases in later achievement or increases in behaviour problems’. But … the timing of the return to work was ‘important’.
The childcare industry and those wanting to minimise the mother’s break from work will say this study shows that high quality childcare and a year’s paid parental leave are all that is needed to ensure that children do not suffer ill effects if their mothers go back to work during the first three years.
What it really seems to show is that widespread single motherhood, with all the stress it entails, lowers the general standard of infant care, so that even current standards of childcare can somehow compensate the children for the absence of their mother all day long.
It does nothing to reassure us that “the kids are OK” under our current way of valuing motherhood.