Study: Why Maternity Leave Is Important

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Are working moms somehow lacking as parents compared to stay-at-home mothers? According to a new demographic analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the answer is a reassuring no. The study found that working doesn’t lower the quality of parenting overall — or even worsen the load of parental stress.

Researchers Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn looked at a broad set of family-based outcomes such as maternal health and mental health, parental stress and quality of parenting using data culled from the National Institute of Child Health And Human Development’s Study on Early Child Care (SECC). They also scored “maternal sensitivity” by observing parenting interactions in a laboratory setting to determine how well moms related to their children. They considered the mothers’ working hours, job flexibility, depression, stress, self-reported health and overall family well being, as reported by the participating women in telephone interviews.

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Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home (either because they didn’t have a job or because they were on maternity leave). No surprise there — juggling a new addition to the family and the added responsibilities that entails, in addition to professional duties, can stretch anyone’s mental and physical reserves. But six months after having a child, while working still caused greater depression among working parents than it did among parents with 3-month-olds — an increase of 10 weekly work hours was associated with a 3% to 7% jump on the depression score — logging full time hours at the office was no longer associated with a drop in parenting quality. In fact, over the first four-and-a-half years of parenting, mothers actually enjoyed an overall reduction in parenting stress if they worked.

What accounts for the disparity? Studies show that mothers who experience depression and stress have a negative impact on their families’ overall wellness and on the health and cognitive development of their children. “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life,” write the authors.

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The answer, they speculate, is time. After 4.5 years, many of the mothers had transitioned back into the workplace, learning to balance competing demands on their time between family and work. The transition isn’t easy, but the key seems to be having enough time to settle into a new life as both parent and professional. That’s why maternity leave is so important– it’s a time entirely devoted to transitioning to the parental role. But it’s just as critical for working moms to shift back to work after this leave and reintegrate to work. Parental leave, say the authors, is essential, but staying out of the workforce doesn’t ensure either healthy children or parents.

Parents — and employers — simply need to figure out how long is long enough. “The results still suggest that the transition back into employment immediately after childbirth is difficult for the average family, detracting from maternal health and increasing self-reported parenting stress,” write the authors. “These findings emphasize the need for parental leave policies that allow new parents to take longer leave, and/or work fewer hours in the first few months after childbirth.” Such policies can lead to healthier parents — and children.

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