Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Effects of Early Maternal Employment on Later Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Effects of Early Maternal Employment on Later Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes

Article excerpt

This article investigates the long-term impact of early maternal employment on children's cognitive and behavioral outcomes. Non-Hispanic White and African American children aged 3 to 4 in the 1986 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth were followed longitudinally to see whether the effects that prior studies found at age 3 to 4 persist into the school-age years (ages 7 to 8) or whether those effects attenuate over time. The empirical results indicate that maternal employment in the Ist year of a child's life has significant negative effects on White children's cognitive outcomes. These effects persist to ages 7 or 8 for some children but not for others. We also found some negative effects of maternal employment in the 1st year on behavioral problems as assessed at age 7 or 8, but again these effects are found only for White children.

Key Words: behavioral outcomes, child's cognitive outcomes, early maternal employment.

Recent trends in labor force participation have given new urgency to understanding the effects of early maternal employment-employment begun in the child's Ist year of life-on child outcomes. Women with infants have had the fastest growth in labor force participation of any group in the United States (Committee on Ways and Means, 1998). With welfare reform, even more mothers will be working in the labor market before their child's first birthday. These trends are of potential concern given prior research that has found negative effects of early maternal employment on outcomes for children.

Several studies have used data from the 1986 wave of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to investigate the effects of maternal employment in the Ist year on children's cognitive and behavioral outcomes as assessed at ages 3 or 4. In this article, we revisit these same children 2 and 4 years later, when they are aged 5 and 6 and aged 7 and 8, to see whether the effects that earlier studies found at ages 3 and 4 would persist. We also wanted to better understand what might cause these effects and how they might be moderated.

With one exception, all the NLSY studies to date have analyzed children at young ages or at one point in time (Baydar & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Belsky & Eggebeen, 1991; Blau & Grossberg, 1992; Desai, Chase-Lansdale, & Michael, 1989; Greenstein, 1995; Parcel & Menaghan, 1994; Vandell & Ramanan, 1992). In a recent study, Harvey (1999) analyzed all the children in the NLSY born in 1980 or later. Her study is exceptional in that it assesses some outcomes as late as age 12 and at several different points in time. Unlike our study, however, Harvey's was not longitudinal in design. In our study, we follow one group of children from ages 3 and 4, to ages 5 and 6, and to ages 7 and 8. We are thus able to show whether the effects that many studies have found at a point in time persist over time or whether they attenuate. Another point of difference between our study and Harvey's is that she analyzes White, African American, and Hispanic children together. If there are important differences in the effects of early maternal employment across racial and ethnic groups, as some prior research has found and as we have found here, then analyzing children separately, is likely to yield more accurate estimates.

Research on maternal employment and child outcomes has been conducted within several theoretical frameworks. The first is attachment theory, which posits that children whose mothers are absent during critical periods of early child development are less likely to develop secure attachments with their mothers (Ainsworth, 1964; Bowlby, 1969). Attachment theory had in mind extended round-the-clock separations due to hospitalizations, illness, incarceration, and so on, and debate continues about whether maternal employment in the Ist year of life constitutes a comparable absence (Belsky, 1988; Belsky & Eggebeen, 1991; Clarke-Stewart, 1989). Early studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, for the most part with small samples of primarily middle-class White children, found some evidence that maternal employment in Ist year is associated with insecure attachment (Belsky; Clarke-Stewart; Haskins, 1985; Schwartz, 1983), but the effects were small. …

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