For working mothers, it may seem like one more thing to feel guilty about: A recent Columbia University study found that children of moms who worked full-time before their kids were 9 months old scored lower on school-readiness tests at age 3 than did those whose moms worked part-time or not at all. (There was no negative effect for kids whose moms went back to work full-time after the first year; in fact, they scored higher.) The analysis was based on data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and followed 900 children over three years.
But moms shouldn’t panic, says Jane Waldfogel, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study. "This is an average effect — it doesn’t mean that your child will be negatively influenced," she says. The study also doesn’t prove that the lower test scores are necessarily due to working — perhaps there were other, preexisting differences between mothers who did and those who did not work full-time.
It’s a good idea to evaluate all the factors that matter to your child’s development, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. The researchers found that a stable home environment, high quality of childcare, and sensitive maternal care bolstered the children’s test scores. And keep in mind that previous studies have shown that whether a child’s mother works has no effect on cognitive development or academic performance in the long term.
One clear conclusion: The burden of juggling both a job and a family shouldn’t rest solely on working parents’ shoulders. "As a society," says Waldfogel, "we need to offer moms and dads more choices — better childcare, longer parental leaves, and the opportunity to work part-time or flexible hours."