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Book Forum: Women and Men: Gender Issues   |    
Mothers at Work: Effects on Children’s Well-Being
JOAN FERRANTE, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:1945-1946. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.11.1945
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By Lois W. Hoffman and Lise M. Youngblade. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 352 pp., $54.95; $19.95 (paper).

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Hoffman and Youngblade point out that one of the major social changes in the United States is the increased employment of women, but especially women with children. In 1940, 8.6% of mothers with children under 18 worked outside the home. By 1996 that percentage had risen to 70%. Obviously the dual demands of employment and parenting affect the father’s role, which in turn affects family structure, functioning, interaction patterns, and child-rearing orientation. However, as Hoffman and Youngblade state in this book, we know amazingly little about how the mother’s employment status affects families and children. The authors researched 465 families with elementary-age children who attended public school in an industrialized city in middle America with low-to-moderate unemployment rates. Their sample consisted of middle-class and working-class families; an estimated 20% of the families were classified as living in poverty. It is important to note that the researchers had a complete data set for 369 of these families.

The structure of Mothers at Work can be described as a 300-page research article. The book opens with an introduction and review of the literature (chapter 1) followed by a chapter on methodology. Chapters 4 through 11 analyze data obtained from mothers, fathers, children and their peers, teachers, and school records. Each chapter concentrates on a theme and places findings within the context of the broader literature. Themes covered include the husband-wife relationship, maternal employment and child outcomes, child rearing, and the mother’s well-being. Chapter 12 offers a summary and review of the research findings. This book also includes a special chapter by Hoffman and Allison Sidle Fuligni (chapter 3) describing what researchers learned about family life from interviews with children.

The combined data analysis and literature review is at times overwhelming. Hoffman and Youngblade summarize their findings by noting,

Twenty years ago, it would have seemed strange to do a study of maternal employment and not focus on it as a social problem, but there is little in these data to suggest that it is. The bulk of what we have found is that most families accommodate well to the mother’s employment and in doing so provide a family environment that works well. (p. 292)

In fact, one is left with the impression that families with stay-at-home moms might be a social problem. As one example, daughters of employed mothers displayed better social and academic competence, had a greater sense of efficacy, scored higher on three achievement tests, and were rated by teachers as showing fewer learning problems (p. 289).

In spite of the vast array of data collected the reader is at times left thinking, What about…? For example, what about the mother’s work environment? No data were collected on hours worked per week, job stresses, degree of autonomy, salary ranges, and so on. Of course, one must realize researchers have to make choices about what to study. They can’t study everything.

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