Maternal Employment and Perceived Stress: Their Impact on Children's Adjustment and Mother-Child Interaction in Young Divorced and Married Families

Article excerpt

The impact of maternal employment on children's socialization and mother-child interaction is of continued concern in child development and mental health (Buehler, 1992; Gottfried & Gottfried, 1988; Hoffman, 1986; Lerner & Galambos, 1991; MacEwen & Barling, 1991; Spitz, 1988). Although a number of authors have pointed out the positive effects of maternal employment on children's adjustment (Barling, 1990; Hoffman, 1986; Hoffman & Nye, 1974), others have expressed concern over mothers' long and inflexible working hours, the lack of part-time jobs that pay adequately, and children's need for consistent adult supervision and high-quality child care (Howell, 1973; Hughes & Galinsky, 1988; Lerner & Galambos, 1991; Ross & Mirowsky, 1988; Voydanoff, 1984).

Research indicates that maternal employment is a multidimensional variable that has a differential impact on children depending on the number of hours a mother works, her job description, job stability, and role satisfaction (Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1982; Gottfried & Gottfried, 1988). Moreover, a mother's perceived level of stress and her feelings of well-being, whether as an employee outside the home, a full-time homemaker, or both, may be critical determinants of positive maternal parenting behavior and children's adjustment (Campbell & Moen, 1992; MacEwen & Barling, 1991; Patterson, 1990; Spitz, 1988). Maternal employment experiences may also have different effects on children's adjustment and family interaction depending on the children's ages and gender, as well as the number of children in the family (Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1982; Campbell & Moen, 1992; Kelly & Voydanoff, 1985; Zaslow, Rabinovich, & Suwalsky, 1991).

Some mothers, particularly divorced ones, do not have the luxury of choosing whether to become a working parent, because the family's economic needs override personal preference. Current statistics, for example, indicate that nearly two thirds of mothers with dependent children are employed outside the home (MacEwen & Barling, 1991). Campbell and Moen (1992) report that, in 1988, 54% of single mothers and 57% of married mothers with preschool children were in the labor force.

Maternal Stress and Well-Being

Rutter (1988) has described stress as a centuries-old concept that still remains lacking in both adequate definition and understanding. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) describe stress as a "rubric consisting of many variables and processes" (p. 12). One such process is psychological stress, which the authors describe as "a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being" (p. 18). Psychological stress may be a result of cumulative and/or severely taxing life events such as divorce, ill health, or the death of a family member. Other sources of psychological stress, however, are the routine events or daily "hassles" that accumulate, frustrate, and irritate family members (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981). Such hassles include relatively minor-but annoying-practical concerns, such as misplacing or losing things, traffic problems, demands of children, concerns about money, and pressures from work overload.

The limited research that is available concerning the effect of maternal hassles on the mother-child relationship suggests that these stressors may negatively influence both a mother's perceptions of her child's adjustment and the quality of mother-child interaction (Crnic & Greenberg, 1990; Gelfand, Teti, & Fox, 1992; Patterson, 1988). Hassles may also influence these variables indirectly through their negative association with mothers' feelings of well-being, a construct that has been reported to be positively associated with child outcomes and the quality of mother-child relationships, especially among divorced families (Forgatch, Patterson, & Skinner, 1988; Garmezy, Mastin, & Tellegin, 1984; Kanner et al. …