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Working Families

School-age Children, Infants And Toddlers, Nonmaternal Care

The employment of mothers has been increasing to the point that it is now the modal pattern in the United States. In 1960, fewer than 30 percent of all mothers of children under age eighteen were in the labor force; forty years later, fewer than 30 percent were not in the labor force. Further, 64 percent of all married mothers with preschool children were in the labor force at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as were 73 percent of divorced mothers and 67 percent of the mothers who had never married. In fact, in two-parent families with infants one year old and under, 62 percent of the mothers were employed, a figure more than double the rate in 1975. Thus, most families in the early twenty-first century are "working families." There is considerable public interest in how this shift affects families and children, and it is a research area to which developmental psychologists have given considerable attention.

To understand the impact of maternal employment, it is important to realize that this change has been accompanied by other interrelated changes. Modern technology has diminished the amount of necessary housework and food preparation, women are more educated, marriages are less stable, life expectancy has been increased and youthfulness has been extended, expectations for personal fulfillment have expanded, and traditional gender-role attitudes are less widely held. There have also been changes in child-rearing practices, and the adult roles for which children are being socialized are not the same as previously. The increased employment of mothers is both an effect of these changes and also an influence on them. In addition, the accompanying social changes operate to modify the effects of maternal employment on the family and children.

For example, attitudes about women's roles have changed markedly over the years. The decrease in gender-role traditionalism is one of the factors that has led to the increased employment of mothers. The increased entry of mothers into the labor force itself, however, has also affected attitudes about gender roles. As more mothers seek employment, maternal employment has become more acceptable. In addition, it has affected the division of labor in the home. In dual-earner families, more than three-fourths of the mothers work full-time, thus decreasing the amount of time available for housework and child care. Studies of the family division of labor have long shown that when mothers work, fathers help more with housework and child care. In 1997 James T. Bond, Ellen Galinsky, and Jennifer E. Swanberg conducted a national-sample study to replicate a study from twenty years earlier. The new study found that fathers had become more active in household tasks and child care over the years. Although employed married mothers still do more housework and child care than their husbands, the difference has decreased. Attitudes have also changed. Not only is there more acceptance of mothers working, but there is also more acceptance of fathers helping with housework and child care. These changes, in turn, have modified the effects of employment on children and the stress on mothers. Research by Lois Hoffman and Lise Youngblade has shown that more active participation of fathers in child care and the resultant higher morale of the mothers have positive effects on children's academic performance and social adjustment.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8