‘Bad’ Mother Is Good

Giving Up A Career For Being A “Good Mom” Lessens Child’s Achievements

Bad Mother Is Good. Healthy Living Magazine

Bad Mother Is Good. Healthy Living Magazine

Do women who have important, demanding jobs neglect their children just because they are working? A surprising number of working women with children think they do shortchange their kids. Even women with enough personal income to easily provide their children with the big three—quality child care, access to health care and healthy nutrition (a loving commitment is understood)—worry that their devotion to work means their children will not reach their full potential.

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Studies show that they are wrong about this assumption, but the concerns come from long-held (often from childhood), deeply ingrained perceptions about motherhood. These feelings are probably reinforced by a genetic propensity developed when all humans struggled to survive in a primitive environment. In that world, a constantly present and alert mother gave her small children a significant survival edge. The developed world today rewards different behaviors but understanding that reality often lags.

The result of that lag represents a roadblock for many women who otherwise would have more freedom to pursue their fullest potential.

How big a problem is this?

Consider that the gap between academic achievement by women and their professional advancement has inspired public debate and created pressure for women to “lean in.” Nevertheless, the data on female professional advancement continues to disappoint. In 2014, women held 5.2% of Fortune 500 chief executive officer positions. Women currently hold 18.7% of the 535 seats in Congress. And women earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

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At the same time, for the graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimated women earned 61.6% of all associate’s degrees, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees and 51.6% of all doctorates. That year, 140 women graduated with a college degree at some level for every 100 men.

An important way to view this discrepancy is by how women perceive what is appropriate for their gender.

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In a large, racially/ethnically diverse sample, published in the December issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers examined the extent that college women’s beliefs about working mothers are actually supported by meta-analytic data. Based on their findings, researchers Wendy Goldberg and Rachel Lucas-Thompson conclude that college women tend to “miss the mark” by consistently misperceiving the negative effects on children whose mothers work fulltime.

Specifically the research showed that educated, 21st century young women tended to believe that if they had children and worked, those children would be more likely to have behavioral problems and lower grades and test scores. In effect, the subjects of this study accepted a stereotype that women who work will have less successful children, which is a conclusion that academic research on maternal employment does not support.

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This finding matters and it matters a lot. Why?

If young, educated women are overweighting the negative impacts of full-time employment and underweighting the positive effects, they make career and family choices based on inaccurate perceptions. Perceptions that will lead them to eliminate from consideration professional pursuits that seem too rigorous to be balanced against the responsibilities of motherhood. They are more likely to accept as inevitable a one-sided division of labor on the home front and less likely to expect equality. They are more likely to turn away from some professional opportunities that they would otherwise embrace with enthusiasm, or decide to give up working altogether. They may believe they should take a mommy friendly job, that provides less pay and allows less opportunity for advancement, so they can be a good enough parent.

I am reminded of a graduating high school senior with excellent grades and test scores who said she would pursue a degree in nursing rather than become a physician because she would have more time to be a good mother. Let us put aside the fact that as a physician, particularly in some specialties, she may have more control over her time than a nurse. More deeply troubling is the blithe dismissal of her best opportunity based on a faulty perception of motherhood. Society pays a dear price when individuals don't reach for their highest potential.

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For those mothers who do work and advance professionally, many harbor a pernicious internalized guilt. Deep in the recesses of their minds is a sentiment many share—“I should be home more with my children” or alternatively—“I am not supposed to be enjoying my work as much as I do,” and believing there will be unspoken consequences to their children as a result of their professional choices.

In fact, the research shows that the negative effects of maternal employment on children are actually quite small and that there are positive offsets.

Girls in particular unequivocally benefit from their mothers’ working. Girls whose mothers work tend to have higher academic achievement, greater career success and are more likely to take on nontraditional career choices as well as to hold more egalitarian ideas about gender than girls whose mothers do not work.

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Gender ideology refers to the attitudes and beliefs that individuals hold about what the appropriate roles and responsibilities should be for men and women. Like many traits passed onto children, gender roles are assimilated unconsciously, primarily through observing how those closest to them interact and work. Whatever one has absorbed as appropriate for their gender will likely be acted out in adulthood— through marital choice, the division of labor in a marriage, as well as decisions around work and parenting.

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Although a parent can promote the academic achievement of their daughter, they may simultaneously (and unknowingly) display, through their own career choices or lack of egalitarian balance in their romantic relationships, the idea that ‘you can achieve in school but ultimately if you decide to have children, work will fall to the background.’

Parents are swimming against a very powerful cultural bias in this regard.

Dispelling cultural myths about the negative impact of maternal employment on children will go far to change ingrained patterns that block those who are otherwise ready to “lean in.” With that in mind, to make sustainable progress, society as a whole must find ways to aggressively lean in on this issue. In some ways, it is unfair to put the full responsibility on individual women who in the end must find their way in the world as it is.

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This means speaking up without equivocation when others categorize working mothers as not being present enough in their children's lives to assure their welfare. But there is one important caveat. This assertion should be made without casting aspersions on those mothers who choose to stay home. The point is, it is a choice that is available to mothers and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either decision. In all of this it is particularly important to talk to young girls directly about the difference between gender stereotypes regarding working mothers and the reality of what a healthy balance of work and home life offers.

Changing economic and social barriers that make it harder for women to balance work and parenting is dependent upon helping girls to connect with egalitarian gender roles in childhood.

REFERENCEGoldberg WA, Lucas-Thompson RG (2014). College women miss the mark when estimating the impact of full-time maternal employment on children’s achievement and behavior. Psychol Women Q, 38 490- 502. Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in Washington, DC. She is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.
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