In the cage match that is the debate over whether kids do better if their moms stay home or work, everything is contested. In related news, any new study that analyzes statistics on the effects thereof is liable set off the academic equivalent of a bar brawl. Please bear those things in mind when reading the following: a new study has found that kids of working moms may have more unfortunate health incidents than the kids of stay-at-home moms.
Kids whose moms were employed outside the home, the paper found, were more likely to have been hospitalized, had an asthma attack or an injury or ingested something poisonous in the last year than kids whose moms weren’t working. Not just a little more likely — twice as likely.
The findings, soon to be published in the Journal of Health Economics, contradict other research that has found the opposite: that working moms have healthier kids. (Which contradicts other research, and so on…) The discrepancy is due to the way the researcher Melinda Sandler Morrill, an assistant professor of economics at North Carolina State University, sliced and diced the available data.
Morrill looked at the health only of kids aged 7 to 17 who had a younger sibling of about kindergarten age, so that their moms were likely to be right on the cusp of changing their working status. She also used other difficult-to-explain statistical techniques to try to make sure that the results she was seeing were due only to the fact that the mom was working, rather than anything else. If the same mother had not been working, what would the kids health have looked like?
For example, she wanted to make sure that the mothers weren’t staying home because their children were frail, rather than the other way around, which would skew the results. Also she wanted to make sure that the figures weren’t comparing a mother who was not good at multitasking with a mother who was.
While the headline-friendly finding could produce handwringing among working moms and a quiet smile among those whose primary job is mothering, that’s not the intended result. “I’m not trying to make a statement,” says Morrill. Rather, she’s striving for a more accurate picture than the current analyses can supply. “[The study] provides one more piece of evidence about what happens to children when mothers work.”
It doesn’t seem all that surprising that schoolkids whose mothers work suffer more health incidents of the kinds she suggests. Injuries, poisonings, asthma attacks would logically seem more likely to happen to children who are not being being minutely supervised than to those who are.
Morrill, who declined to say whether she had kids, acknowledges that this is a possible explanation. But she was was quick to add that she couldn’t say where the kids in the study were when the incidents happened — with parents, grandparents or a nanny or at day care. And the study had no information about the long-term well-being of kids with moms in paid employment.
“It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the relationship between working mothers and childhood health,” Morrill says, which is why she wanted to crunch the numbers in a different way. For an economist, any new information about the actual cost and benefits to the economy of working mothers is worth examining, because of the increasing number of women with children out in the labor force. (More on Time.com: The Rise of the Sheconomy)
Especially if it’s news an increasing number of women aren’t delighted to hear.