Working Women's Selection of Care for Their Infants: A Prospective Study

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Working Women's Selection of Care for Their Infants: A Prospective Study*

We interviewed 102 employed women before and after the birth of their first child to examine: (1) the influences of environmental constraints and maternal beliefs on mothers' care decisions, and (2) change in environmental constraints and beliefs. Both employmentrelated constraints and maternal beliefs were related to infant care decisions, and mothers who chose nonparental versus parent-only care differed in how their constraints and beliefs changed over time. Implications for practitioners are discussed.

Key Words: child care, infants, parental beliefs.

In the United States, an estimated 60% of women with children age 1 and under are working at least part time, and the large majority of these mothers select a non-maternal care arrangement for their infants (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1995). Given the importance of child care selection in the lives of mothers and their children, researchers have begun to investigate factors that influence mothers' decisions. Pungello and Kurtz-Costes ( 1999) recently reviewed this literature and proposed a theoretical model that identified three types of influences on child care search and selection behaviors: environmental constraints (e.g., need to work for income, work schedule flexibility), maternal beliefs (e.g., attitudes toward child care), and child characteristics (e.g., child's age). These authors also proposed that care selection decisions might lead mothers to change aspects of their environment as well as cause changes in maternal beliefs and attitudes. For instance, a mother who decides to stay home with her infant might arrange to work out of her home, thereby changing her work situation. This same mother might become more persuaded over time about the benefits of staying home with her infant and of the detriments of nonparental care. Thus, not only are environmental and belief factors proposed to influence care selection, but conversely, mothers' selection of infant care is hypothesized to lead to changes in their environmental constraints and beliefs.

Strong empirical support for these bi-directional relationships has not yet been established due to a methodological weakness of much of the work in this area. Most of the studies that have examined this topic have employed retrospective designs. That is, because mothers' beliefs and environmental constraints have been assessed after care was selected, the direction of causality in these studies is unclear. Further, of the few studies that have employed prospective designs (e.g., NICHD, 1997), most have not examined changes in these constructs over time. Therefore, the purposes of the current study were to examine the influences of maternal factors (environmental constraints, beliefs) on infant care selection, and to document changes in those maternal factors after care selection with a prospective, longitudinal research design. We chose to focus on mothers because in the vast majority of families, it is mothers who have primary responsibility for finding and selecting nonparental care arrangements (e.g., Atkinson, 1991; Bradbard & Endsley, 1986; Clarke-- Stewart, 1993).

Influences of Environmental Constraints and Beliefs on Care Selection

Environmental constraints. We define environmental constraints as any characteristics of the mother's environment that constrain or limit her choices regarding infant care (cf. Cairns, McGuire, & Gariepy, 1993; Pungello & Kurtz-Costes, 1999). For working women soon to have their first child, constraints related to employment may be particularly salient. For example, if a couple relies heavily on the wife's income, it would be difficult for her to take a lengthy unpaid leave after her infant's birth. In the current study, we examine three environmental constraints that are hypothesized to influence mothers' infant care choices: income constraints, flexibility of the mother's day-to-day work schedule, and long-term career goals. …