Working all the live-long day: Parenting and employment

by Abbey Eisenhower, Department of Psychology, Program in Clinical Psychology, UCLA Jan Blacher, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Riverside

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In recent decades, more and more mothers are entering the work force. This societal change has given rise to a surge of research aimed at measuring how working outside the home affects women’s lives. In this column, we will share some research findings on the complex relationship between employment and parenting. Whether you work outside the home or not, we aim to present some strategies you can use for reducing stress while parenting. (Note to fathers: We recognize that many of you work and provide parenting as well, but since the research literature focuses on mothers—who traditionally had the monopoly on parenting— we will feature them here.)

For most mothers, working outside the home or staying home to raise one’s family is a constant balancing act, and involves consideration of the money to be earned, child-care needs, values and desires. You may be surprised to learn that many mothers raising children with developmental disabilities are employed at sometime during their childrearing years. About half of these mothers are at work when their child is three years old, and about two-thirds of these mothers by the time their child is a teenager or young adult.

How does employment affect mothers’ mental and physical health?
Being employed is just one of the many roles that women might occupy, in addition to mother, wife, community volunteer, relative, friend, and neighbor. Research on women’s roles has centered around two competing ideas. One is referred to as the role enhancement theory, which argues that employment provides psychological and social benefits to women, through increased contact and social interaction with other adults, and increased sense of self-esteem and mastery of a job or skill. On the other hand, the role overload theory suggests that the pressures and demands of juggling multiple roles, such as work and parenting, may exhaust women’s personal resources and be damaging to women’s physical and mental health.

Overall, most research suggests that mothers who work outside the home, volunteer, belong to social organizations, or are otherwise highly engaged in their community, have better physical health and report less stress and more life satisfaction. Research on mothers of children and young adults with exceptionalities also suggests that mothers who are employed are physically and psychologically healthier, and, in particular, are less prone to depression than mothers who do not work outside the home. Indeed, many mothers of children with exceptionalities report that their work outside the home provides them with a needed respite from their child-care duties.

On the other hand, for some mothers, the stress and childrearing duties associated with raising an exceptional child may mean that holding a job overloads women’s resources and leads to more stress. The child’s needs—such as behavior and psychiatric problems, specialized treatments, and frequent doctor visits—may require mothers of exceptional children to miss work more often than other mothers. Too, mothers of children with exceptionalities may confront more difficulties finding reliable and competent childcare.

Overall, the benefits or drawbacks of being employed may depend on the nature of the job, the needs of the child, the support from friends and family, and the way women cope with stress.

Can mothers’ employment have negative effects on parenting?
Drs Jay Belsky and David Eggebeen from Penn State University looked at the effects of early maternal employment on children’s development. These researchers found that in a sample of mothers who returned to work full-time when their child was one- or two-years-old, the children were less compliant to parental demands. However, these results should be viewed in light of the fact that children naturally become slightly more difficult as they get older—hence, the “terrible two’s.” One might also consider the children of working mothers as more spunky or independent than children whose mothers stay home. The quality of non-parental childcare that the children of working mothers experience will also impact child behavior.

How can maternal employment improve parenting?
Researchers Dr Ellen Greenberger, Dr Robin O’Neil, and Dr Stacy K. Nagel studied how the nature of parents’ jobs relates to their parenting behavior. The researchers examined this relationship in a group of 188 parents with children between the ages of 5 and 7. Among the benefits of employment, they found that positive features of parents’ work, like challenges, stimulation, and complex interactions with other people, were shown to be associated with more effective parenting, including less harsh discipline, more warmth, and greater responsiveness. They also found evidence that some aspects of work can enhance parenting practices and child expectations. For example, parents who have to reason with others on the job may bring this skill home with them, leading to more firm but flexible control in parenting. Other research indicates that mothers whose jobs include more positive features will be more satisfied with their work, which will enhance their mood. These mothers will then bring this positive mood home with them, helping them to be more sensitive and warm with their children.

Dr Elizabeth Cooksey and her colleagues at Ohio State University have also found that mothers whose jobs involved more complex interactions with people had children with lower levels of behavior problems. The authors speculated that the financial benefits of mothers’ employment, together with the skills they learn on the job and bring to their parenting, outweigh possible disadvantages like the decreased time working mothers may have to spend with their children.

How can I protect my health and well-being, whether I work or not?

1) If you work, make clear boundaries between work and family time.
Dr Ellen Kossek and colleagues at Michigan State University have been studying how employed parents balance work and family. In a 2005 study, Dr Kossek and colleagues found that workers who try to integrate family and work life, rather than keeping the two spheres separate, are the most stressed. If you work outside the home, you can help reduce your own stress by establishing clear boundaries between work and family. If you need to work at home, try doing so at scheduled times, in a separate room with the door closed. Alternately, consider arranging a few extra hours of child-care help each week and try to get your work done during this time, rather than letting it spill over into family time. Separating the two spheres of your life means that the time you spend with your family will be higher quality and less stressful.

2) If you do not work outside the home, give yourself a break.
Having adequate help with child-care may be especially crucial to mothers who do not work outside the home. In a study of 252 mothers raising a young adult son or daughter with intellectual disability, we (Jan Blacher and Abbey Eisenhower) have found child-care support to be crucial to women’s well-being. Mothers who had at least four people they could count on for help with child-care reported good health and well-being regardless of whether they worked outside the home. However, mothers who reported having zero to three people they could depend on for child-care support faced poorer physical and mental health, especially if they did not work outside the home.

This finding suggests that getting a few hours of respite from child-care duties each week can be especially important for mothers who do not work outside the home, as this may be your only “break” from child-care in the week. Consider asking qualified friends, neighbors, or relatives to assist you with a little extra time each week. Alternately, contact your local disability service agency in order to obtain respite care, a service which many agencies provide for free on a limited basis.

3) Take an active approach to coping with stress.
In the same study of mothers raising young adults with intellectual disability, we also found that certain ways of coping with stress seem to enable unemployed mothers to fare just as well as employed mothers. We found that, in times of stress, it was especially adaptive for mothers of children with intellectual disability to seek out social support and help from friends; those that did so reported good physical and mental health regardless of whether or not they worked outside the home. But this support-seeking strategy appears to be especially useful for mothers who do not work outside the home; unemployed mothers who cope with stress by seeking social support are as healthy and happy as employed mothers, who may have “built-in” social support through their work.

On the other hand, mothers who feel that stressful situations are out of their control or who choose to wait for the problem to go away report poorer health and well-being, regardless of whether they work outside the home.

4) Find ways to make your work interesting and stimulating.
The benefits of being employed may hinge on the nature of one’s work. In 2001, Dr Marji Warfield at the University of Massachusetts interviewed 122 mothers of 5-year-old children with developmental disabilities about their jobs, parenting, and stress. Dr Warfield found that the working mothers as a whole were no more or less stressed than non-working mothers. However, working mothers who rated their jobs as interesting reported less parenting stress than working mothers who did not find their jobs interesting. In other words, having a stimulating, interesting job may help alleviate the stress of raising an exceptional child, whereas having a boring, unstimulating job does not provide a respite from childrearing stress. Although you’re probably not in a position to give up your job for a more interesting one, consider looking for ways to take on assignments or interact with people that you find interesting and stimulating during the course of your workday.

5) Get involved in your community!
It’s not too late to improve your ability to cope with the stress of raising an exceptional child. In a study of over 400 older mothers raising a young adult or grown son or daughter with intellectual disability—some of whom had been raising their child for as long as 5 decades—Drs Jinkuk Hong and Marsha Mailick Seltzer at the University of Wisconsin studied mothers’ social involvement and feelings of depression over a three-year period. These researchers found that joining a support group, maintaining regular contact with a friend, relative, or neighbor, or holding a job, all led mothers to report less depression, even resulting in significant improvements in their feelings of depression over time.

In a similar study, Phyllis Moen and colleagues at Cornell University followed over three hundred married mothers from 1950 to 1986. These mothers generally had typically-developing sons or daughters. The researchers found that women who participated in their community—through work, volunteer work, or by participating in a club or organization—during their early years as a wife and mother had better physical health in their sixties, seventies, and eighties and even lived longer than other women. In fact, even intermittent, occasional participation in volunteer work or clubs led to better health and longevity down the line. Overall, it seems that getting involved in your community or establishing social relationships can be valuable for your long-term psychological and physical health.

One thing is for certain, though: Mothers of children with exceptionalities all “work,” whether or not they get paid for it. As a group, they have much to blow their horn about!

Editor’s note:
This article is reprinted from the March 2005 issue of Exceptional Parent Magazine, a US publication for parents of children or young adults with disabilities. In the US, the term ‘exceptional children’ is often used for children with intellectual disability, autism and other conditions that challenge. Complete references to works cited in this ‘Research Reflections’ article may be obtained by emailing: epedit@aol.com. See also the website www.eparent.com.

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