Article Text

PDF

Maternal employment and child socio-emotional behaviour in the UK: longitudinal evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study
  1. Anne McMunn,
  2. Yvonne Kelly,
  3. Noriko Cable,
  4. Mel Bartley
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Anne McMunn, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, 1–19 Torrington Place, London WC1E 6BT, UK; a.mcmunn{at}ucl.ac.uk

Abstract

Background Mothers of young children are increasingly combining paid work with childrearing. Empirical evidence on the effects of maternal employment on children is contradictory and little work has considered the impact of maternal employment within the context of the employment patterns of both parents.

Methods Data on parental employment across three sweeps (when children were in infancy, age 3 and age 5 y) of the Millennium Cohort Study, a large nationally representative prospective birth cohort study, were used to investigate the relation between parental employment and child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years independent of maternal education, maternal depression or household income. The cumulative effect of maternal employment across the early years was investigated. The impact of maternal employment in the first year of life was separately examined as a potentially ‘sensitive period’.

Results There was no evidence of detrimental effects of maternal employment in the early years on subsequent child socio-emotional behaviour. There were significant gender differences in the effects of parental employment on behavioural outcomes. The most beneficial working arrangement for both girls and boys was that in which both mothers and fathers were present in the household and in paid work independent of maternal educational attainment and household income.

Conclusion No detrimental effects of maternal employment in the early years were seen. There were important gender differences in relationships between parental working arrangements and child socio-emotional outcomes.

  • Child socio-emotional behaviour
  • maternal employment
  • parental working arrangements
  • millennium cohort study
  • gender differences
  • child development

Statistics from Altmetric.com

Introduction

Mothers of young children are increasingly combining paid work with childrearing. Concerns regarding the effects of maternal employment on children's development have been raised,1–3 but most previous work, which has focused on cognitive or educational outcomes, shows mixed results.4–12 Several studies have found that children of working mothers are more likely than those of stay-at-home mothers to be overweight,13–15 and to have worse dietary habits and be more sedentary.16 However, a recent review also found that children of working mothers were more likely to have taken up pre-school vaccinations,15 while others have found no significant associations between maternal employment and incidence of infectious disease or injury.17 Fewer studies have looked at the effects of maternal employment on socio-emotional behaviour. There is some evidence of a sensitive period during a child's first year of life with regards to maternal employment.11 However, more recent studies have either found no relationship between maternal employment and socio-emotional behaviour,7 10 or found that children of employed mothers were less likely to display internalising behaviour7 or be worried and unhappy.18 There is also some evidence that these relationships vary by family structure, with full-time maternal employment leading to increased behavioural difficulties at age 4 years among the children of lone mothers but not those of married mothers.19 For children living with two parents, the impact of maternal employment on children may partly depend upon their father's working arrangements, although evidence on whether fathers' work hours are increasing or decreasing is contradictory.20 21 Most of the studies that have looked at child socio-emotional behaviour have focused on the impact of maternal employment per se7 10 19 and have not examined behaviour within the context of the employment patterns of both parents.

The aim of this study is to examine the effects of maternal employment and parental working arrangements in the early years on child socio-emotional behaviour at the age of school entry in the most recent birth cohort study in the UK—the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Information on parental employment in infancy and at ages 3 and 5 years are used to investigate: (i) whether children whose mothers were in paid work during their first 5 years were more likely than children whose mothers were at home full-time to display adverse socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years independent of maternal education, mental health or economic position; (ii) whether effects of maternal employment on child socio-emotional behaviour were cumulative in nature or whether children were more sensitive to the effects of maternal employment during their first year; and (iii) the effects of different types of parental work arrangements on child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years.

Methods

Sample

MCS is a prospective study of children born in the UK at the start of the new millennium.22 The original cohort consisted of 18 819 children born between September 2000 and January 2002, which represented a response rate of 82% of eligible households.23 In addition to this first sweep, there have been two subsequent sweeps of data collection, at ages 3 and 5 years, with response rates of 78% and 79% of the issued sample, respectively.24 For this analysis we select singleton births in households in which a mother was present (96% of households). We have also restricted these analyses to white children as there was large ethnic variation in maternal employment but inadequate power in the sample to stratify analysis by ethnicity. MCS data are publicly available and ethical approval for data collection was obtained from a Multi-centre Research Ethics Committee in the UK.

Measures

Child socio-emotional behaviour

Child socio-emotional behaviour was measured when children were aged 3 years and again at age 5 years using the parent-fill version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ is a widely used instrument developed for assessing child socio-emotional behaviour (http://www.sdqinfo.com/), which has been shown to correlate highly with both the Child Behaviour Checklist and the Rutter questionnaire, and to discriminate between cases of child psychological morbidity and controls at least as well as these instruments with a sensitivity of 63.3% and specificity of 94.6%.25–27 The SDQ is composed of 25 items, which cover five domains of behaviour: hyperactivity, emotional symptoms, conduct problems, peer problems and prosocial behaviour (see appendix 1 for a list of items). Each item has three response categories—‘not true’, ‘somewhat true’ or ‘certainly true’—which are coded as 0, 1 or 2. A total difficulties score is derived by adding the scores of each of the scales, except the prosocial behaviour domain, producing a total score ranging from 0–40. Clinically relevant cut-points for problem behaviours were determined as the top 10% of all MCS children with SDQ data.28

Maternal employment

Maternal employment information was taken from infancy, age 3 and age 5 years. A longitudinal measure of maternal employment was created by categorising the number of sweeps at which mothers were in paid work (full or part time). At sweep 1, 5% of those employed were at home on maternity leave; they are considered employed at sweep 1 for this analysis.

Household parental employment

Information on the employment status of mothers and their partners across the three sweeps of data collection was combined to create a longitudinal measure of household employment status. This resulted in five categories of households in which two parental figures were present at all three data sweeps and two categories of households that were lone mother households for at least one of the three data sweeps. Two-parent households were categorised as ‘dual-earner households’, ‘traditional households’, ‘briefly unemployed households’, ‘chronic unemployed households’ and ‘female-breadwinner households’. Dual-earner households were those in which both the mother and her partner were in paid work at each of the three data sweeps, or for two of the three data sweeps and followed the traditional male-breadwinner model for one data sweep. Traditional households were those in which the mother's partner was in paid work and the mother was not in paid work at all three sweeps, or at two sweeps while the mother was in paid work as well at one sweep. Briefly unemployed households were those in which neither the mother nor her partner was in paid work for only one sweep. Chronic unemployed households were those in which neither the mother nor her partner was in paid work for two or three sweeps. Half of the households in this group were unemployed households for all three sweeps. Female-breadwinner households were those in which the mother was in paid work and her partner was not in paid work for one or more sweeps. Over half of the households in this group were female-breadwinner households for one of the sweeps and only 8% were female-breadwinner households for all three sweeps. Lone mother households were divided into those in which the mother was in paid work for one or more sweeps and those in which the mother was not in paid work for any of the three sweeps. Both full and part time work was included as employment for each of the categories and each of the categories is mutually exclusive. Table 1 provides a brief description of household employment groups for easier reference.

Table 1

Household employment groups

Maternal education

Information on mothers' educational qualifications was categorised by UK National Vocational Qualifications ranging from NVQ5 (equivalent to post-graduate qualifications) to NVQ1 (equivalent to D–G grade on General Certificate of Secondary Education in the UK or some high school education in the USA) and no qualification.

Household income

Available household income variables differed between MCS sweeps and these are described in more detail in appendix 2.

Maternal depression

A measure of maternal depressive symptoms, the six-item Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6), was collected at sweeps 2 and 3. Responses range from ‘none of the time’, scored as 0, to ‘all of the time’ scored as 4, resulting in a total K6 score ranging from 0–24. In multivariate analysis the continuous Kessler score was used; in descriptive analysis a score of 13 or more was considered to be at risk for depressive symptoms. At sweep 1, a nine-item maternal malaise score was collected. Binary response options on the nine items were added together to result in a malaise score ranging from zero to nine at sweep 1. A cut-off score of four or more was used to define psychological distress in descriptive analysis.

Partner's work status and maternal age

Partner's work status was included in analysis of maternal employment and child behaviour and was categorised as partner in work, partner not in work or no partner. The age of the mother at the birth of the MCS child was also included.

Analytical techniques

First the prevalence and correlates of maternal employment in the early years for children in this cohort were described using unadjusted cross-tabulations. Next, relationships between behavioural difficulties at age 5 years and maternal employment were examined. Unadjusted cross-tabulations were conducted between socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years and maternal employment at infancy (to look at whether the first year of life was a sensitive period for the effects of maternal employment for children in this cohort) and then cumulatively across the early years separately for girls and boys. Next, multivariate logistic regression models were used to examine the likelihood of having behavioural difficulties at age 5 years by maternal employment first unadjusted (model 1), then adjusted for maternal age and partner's work status as potential confounders (model 2), then additionally for maternal education and household income as indicators of socioeconomic position (model 3) and, finally, for maternal depression as a potential mediator of relationships between maternal employment and child behaviour (model 4). Models were run separately for girls and boys. A term for the interaction of maternal employment and maternal education was examined as was an interaction term for maternal employment and gender in a model with boys and girls combined. In the final stage, multivariate logistic regression models were similarly run for household parental employment (without the adjustment for partner's work status) separately for boys and girls, and an interaction between gender and parental employment status was examined in a model with boys and girls combined. All adjustment variables in multivariate models were taken from sweep 3 when children were age 5 years. All analyses were run on cases with complete data (resulting in 83% of the original sample for maternal employment models and 85% of the original sample for parental employment models) and were weighted to account for the clustered sampling design and non-response bias.

Results

Maternal employment in the early years

Table 2 shows the proportion of mothers in paid work for each age of data collection, first overall and then by potential correlates of maternal employment: maternal education, household income, maternal depression and partner's work status. In infancy, over half of mothers were in paid work and this proportion increased by a few percentage points at each subsequent age. Table 2 also shows that the proportion of mothers in paid work increased with increasing educational qualifications and household income. Mothers with working partners were much more likely to be in paid work themselves and mothers without paid work were more likely to have depressive symptoms than other mothers at all three ages.

Table 2

Proportion of mothers in paid work at each age of data collection by potential correlates of maternal employment

Maternal employment and child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years

Table 3 shows that boys and girls whose mothers were not employed when they were babies were significantly more likely than boys and girls whose mothers were employed to have behavioural difficulties at age 5 years in unadjusted relationships suggesting that infancy did not represent a sensitive period with regard to maternal employment for children in this cohort. Table 3 also shows that the proportion of difficulties reported increased with the amount of time mothers had spent out of paid work.

Table 3

Proportion with socio-emotional difficulties at age 5 years by maternal employment in infancy and cumulative maternal employment in the early years separately for boys and girls

Table 4 shows that, in unadjusted relationships, the likelihood of reported difficulties increased with the amount of time mothers had spent out of the labour market. This relationship was much stronger for girls than for boys, and there was a significant interactive effect on behaviour at age 5 years between cumulative maternal employment and gender (p=0.02, not shown). Adjusting for maternal education and household income explained at least a fifth of the relationship between maternal employment and difficulties at age 5 years, which remained strong and significant for girls but not for boys. Adjusting for maternal depression further attenuated the relationship between maternal employment and children's socio-emotional behaviour among girls slightly.

Table 4

Effects of maternal employment on total difficulties at age 5 years by gender among white children

Parental employment and child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years

In unadjusted models (table 5), boys in unemployed, female-breadwinner or lone mother households were significantly more likely to have difficulties at age 5 years than boys in dual-earner households. Boys in traditional households did not differ significantly from boys in dual-earner households. While adjusting for household income and maternal education reduced the ORs for boys in each of these household types substantially, boys in lone mother and chronically unemployed households remained strongly and significantly more likely to have difficulties at age 5 years as boys in dual-earner households. Further adjustment for maternal depression reduced the relationship between household employment and behavioural difficulties further for boys in unemployed and lone mother households.

Table 5

Effects of parental employment on total difficulties at age 5 years by gender among white children

While boys in traditional households did not differ significantly from boys in dual-earner households, girls in traditional households were more than twice as likely as girls in dual-earner households to have difficulties at age 5 years. Also, while boys in female-breadwinner households were more likely than those in dual-earner households to have difficulties at age 5 years, girls in female-breadwinner households did not differ significantly from girls in dual-earner households. As with boys, girls who lived in a lone mother or an unemployed household were more likely than girls in dual-earner households to have difficulties at age 5 years in unadjusted models. Adjusting for maternal education and household income substantially reduced the size of effects for girls in each ‘at-risk’ household type, but the ORs remained large and significant for girls in all but briefly unemployed households. The inclusion of maternal depression reduced the likelihood of difficulties at age 5 years for girls in traditional households to non-significance.

There was a significant gender interaction in the relationship between household employment pattern and behaviour at age 5 years (p=0.009).

Discussion

This study investigated whether children whose mothers were in paid work during their first 5 years were more likely than children whose mothers were at home full-time to display adverse socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years. No evidence was found of detrimental effects of maternal employment in the early years on child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years, at least among two-parent families, in a large, nationally representative, cohort of British children born in the new millennium. Instead, results suggested a positive effect of maternal employment on the socio-emotional behaviour of girls in two-parent families in particular. The relationship between behavioural difficulties and maternal employment was significantly stronger for girls than for boys and was not explained by household income, maternal education or maternal depression. There were also gender differences in the effects of parental working arrangements on behavioural outcomes. Boys in female-breadwinner households were significantly more likely to have difficulties at age 5 years than boys in dual-earner households while the same was not true for girls. Conversely, girls in traditional male-breadwinner households were more likely than girls in dual-earner households to have difficulties at age 5 years, while the same relationship did not exist for boys. To our knowledge, this is the first study to have shown these gender differences in the effects of parental employment on children's socio-emotional wellbeing. They may reflect the importance of gender in family role model processes. However, it is important to note that the most beneficial working arrangement for both girls and boys was that in which both mothers and fathers were present in the household and in paid work independent of household income.

Earlier British cohort studies have also found either no effect, or a positive effect of maternal employment in the early years on the socio-emotional behaviour of offspring.7 10 18 The increased behavioural difficulties of children, and particularly girls, whose mothers are not in paid work warrants further investigation. As working mothers tend to have higher educational qualifications and live in higher income households, we might expect these measures to explain the increased difficulties of children whose mothers are not in paid work. Indeed, relationships were to some extent explained by maternal education and household income suggesting that these are important contextual factors. Adjustment for maternal depression further attenuated the increased behavioural difficulties of children whose mothers were not in paid work perhaps indicating that maternal mental health is an important mediating factor in this relationship. However, an element of the increased behavioural difficulties at age 5 years among girls whose mothers were not in paid work remained unexplained in this study.

As has been shown in previous studies,29 children in lone mother households and two-parent households in which neither parent was in paid work were much more likely to have behavioural difficulties at age 5 years than children in dual-earner households. These relationships were largely attenuated by household income and maternal characteristics, but remained significant for girls, with the exception of brief household unemployment, which was attenuated by household income and maternal education for both boys and girls.

The most serious potential limitation of this study is reporting bias. The measure of child socio-emotional behaviour used here was reported by the main respondent who was nearly always the child's mother. It is possible that maternal perceptions of their child's behaviour were influenced by how much time they spent at work away from their children. If reporting bias does influence the results shown here, it would not necessarily negate the relationships seen as maternal perceptions are likely to be an important component of parenting behaviour and relationships within the family. This study is also limited to white children in the MCS sample and the results, therefore, are not applicable to the general population. Our initial analysis suggested that Pakistani and Bangladeshi mothers were much less likely than mothers in other ethnic groups to be in paid work, and results from the MCS sweep 3 User's Guide support this.30

In conclusion, this study has shown no detrimental effects of maternal employment in the early years and child socio-emotional behaviour at age 5 years, as well as important gender differences in relationships between parental working arrangements and child socio-emotional outcomes.

What is already known on this subject

Mothers of young children are increasingly combining paid work with childrearing. Empirical evidence on the effects of maternal employment on children is contradictory and little work has considered the impact of maternal employment within the context of the employment patterns of both parents.

What this study adds

There was no evidence of detrimental effects of maternal employment in the early years on subsequent child socio-emotional behaviour. There were significant gender differences in the effects of parental employment on behavioural outcomes. The most beneficial working arrangement for both girls and boys was that in which both mothers and fathers were present in the household and in paid work independent of maternal educational attainment and household income.

Appendix 1

Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) items*

Hyperactivity

  • Restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long

  • Constantly fidgeting or squirming

  • Thinks things out before acting

  • Sees tasks through to the end, good attention span

  • Easily distracted, concentration wanders

Conduct problems

  • Often has temper tantrums or hot tempers

  • Generally obedient, does what adults request

  • Often fights with other children or bullies them

  • Can be spiteful to others

  • Often argumentative with adults

Emotional symptoms

  • Often complains of headaches, stomach aches or sickness

  • Many worries, often seems worried

  • Often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful

  • Nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence

  • Many fears, easily scared

Peer relationships

  • Rather solitary, tends to play alone

  • Has at least one good friend

  • Generally liked by other children

  • Picked on or bullied by other children

  • Gets on better with adults than with other children

Prosocial behaviour (not included in total SDQ score)

  • Considerate of other people's feelings

  • Shares readily with other children (treats, toys, pencils, etc)

  • Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill

  • Kind to younger children

  • Often volunteers to help others (parents, teachers, other children).

Appendix 2

Household income measures

At sweep 1, bands of annual household income were available: £52 000+, £31 200–52 000, £20 800–31 200, £10 400–20 800, £3100–10 400. The two poorest bands were combined due to small numbers of respondents in the poorest band once ethnic minority respondents were excluded. At sweep 2, quintiles of annual household income equivalised to account for the numbers and ages of occupants of the household using the McClements technique were available. The quintiles were calculated for the entire sample rather than the white sample included here. At sweep 3, bands of weekly household income were available: £1000/week or more, £600–1000/week, £400–600/week, £200–400/week, <£200/week.

References

View Abstract

Footnotes

  • Funding This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded International Centre for Life Course Studies in Society and Health (RES-596-28-0001).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study involves secondary analysis of publicly available data. Ethics approval for data collection was obtained from a Multi-centre Research Ethics Committee in the UK.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • * Items in italics are reverse scored.

Request permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.