In the United States today, more than half of mothers with young children work, compared to about one third in the 1970s. Working mothers are now the rule rather than the exception. Women have been moving into the workforce not only for career satisfaction but also because they and their families need the income.
Why Women Work
In many families today, mothers continue to work because they have careers that they have spent years developing. Some women return to work soon after giving birth because they know that most employers in this country are not sympathetic to working mothers who wish to take time off to be with their young children. If these women stop working, even for several months, they may give up some of the advantages they have earned or risk losing certain career opportunities.
Help From Others
As a greater number of women enter the workforce and stay there, more and more children are cared for by adults other than their parents. Relatives sometimes take on child care duties, or children are cared for in a variety of child care settings. Not surprisingly, working mothers are more likely to have their infants and toddlers in an out-of-the- home child care center than nonemployed mothers. However, most three- to five-year-olds are in center-based or preschool programs regardless of whether their mother works outside the home. Parents all want their children to have the best possible start in school, so they are likely to enroll their three- and four-year-olds in a program.
How It Can Impact Your Child
Some people still think that a “good mother” is one who gives up work to stay home with her children. However, no scientific evidence says children are harmed when their mothers work. A child’s development is influenced more by the emotional health of the family, how the family feels about the mother’s working, and the quality of child care. A child who is emotionally well adjusted, well loved, and well cared for will thrive regardless of whether the mother works outside the home.
A mother who successfully manages both an outside job and parenthood provides a role model for her child. In most families with working mothers, each person plays a more active role in the household. The children tend to look after one another and help in other ways. The father is more likely to help with household chores and child rearing as well as breadwinning. These positive outcomes are most likely when the working mother feels valued and supported by family, friends, and coworkers.
Problems can arise if a woman does not want to work or if her husband does not want her to work. If a woman works because she needs the money, she may have to take a job that she does not like. In that case, she needs to be careful not to bring her frustration and unhappiness home, where it will spill over into family relationships. The message the children may receive in this situation is that work is unpleasant and damages instead of builds self-esteem.
Family relationships may suffer if both parents want to work but only one has a job. Problems also can occur if there is competition or resentment because one parent is earning more money than the other. Such conflicts can strain the marriage and may make the children feel threatened and insecure. With both parents working, the need for mutual support and communication is even more important.
Even when there are no problems, however, a two-career family has to deal with issues that do not come up in other families. Parents may feel so divided between family and career that they have little time for a social life or each other. Both parents need to share household and child care responsibilities so that one will not end up doing most of the work and feeling resentful. Parents will lose an average of about ten work days per year due to the need to tend to a sick child, to care for their child when child care arrangements have broken down, or to take their child to necessary appointments.
When to Return to Work
A woman’s decision to return to work must take into account her own needs as well as those of her family. If you are considering returning to work, try to delay your return until three or four months after your child is born. Doing this will allow you to get to know your child and let her get to know you.
Take the time to prepare yourself and your family, so that the adjustment is as easy as possible for everyone. Time your return to work so that stress is minimal. If at all possible, avoid having your return coincide with other major family changes, such as moving or changing schools, or personal crises, such as illness or death in the family; arrange trustworthy child care as far in advance as possible.
Missing Your Child
As a working parent, you are bound to be concerned about the loss of time with your child, especially if he is very young. You may worry that you will miss some of your child’s important milestones, such as his first step or word. You may even feel jealous of the time your child spends with the caregiver. These are all normal feelings. Be aware of them and work to separate your own needs from concerns about your child’s welfare.
The first few years of life are very important in shaping a child’s future personality, but this does not mean that the mother is the only one able to do the shaping. In fact, child care seems to have some important benefits for young children. Youngsters who are routinely cared for by individuals other than their parents may be slightly more independent than other children. A high quality, stimulating, and nurturing child care program also prepares children for school, both socially and intellectually.
The Importance of Quality Child Care
Parents all wish for the best start for their child. Unfortunately, quality child care can be expensive and often hard to find. Many parents end up spending a large share of their paychecks for child care and still are not happy with the quality of the care their children receive. Lower-income families are much less likely to have their child in a quality center, and are more likely to have multiple changes in their child care arrangements, than middle- to higher-income families.
Finding quality child care is very important. Standards for child care settings may vary depending on the type of child care. Parents can, however, improve their children’s child care programs by becoming actively involved. You can visit the program regularly and talk with the caregiver often and extensively. You also can get involved in fund raising and donating supplies, can volunteer to help, or can work with the staff to create developmentally appropriate activities for the children. It also helps to bring the child’s activities home for family interaction, and on weekends, to try to maintain the child’s weekday schedule.
Taking an active role in your child’s care not only helps ensure a child’s well-being, but also may reduce any guilt or misgivings you may feel about working. Having quality child care and a good relationship with the caregiver also can ease some of the worry. Parents need to be especially attentive when they are with their children. The more involved parents are in all aspects of their children’s life—even when they are not physically with their children—the closer they will feel and the more effective they will be as parents.