Maternal Employment May Negatively Affect Child Well-Being… Wait, What?

4405834014_aa2d188916_zA recent Wall Street Journal headline asked the question “No Time for Family Dinner? Try Breakfast”. It’s suggesting a new spin on the old truism that healthy families – and especially healthy children and adolescents – sit down to dinner together every night.

But wait, the WSJ says. Maybe it’s not really about the meal. Maybe it’s about the socioeconomic setting behind the meal.

Families with higher incomes, two parents, one parent who doesn’t work and strong family bonds have family dinner more often than families without those characteristics

Like the nerd I am, I clicked the supporting citation. It led to a 2012 paper by Cornell researchers, “Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-being“, published on the NIH website.

We controlled for variables… that may affect both the management of a regular family dinner and child well-being, including family structure, number of children in the household, family income, parental education, and maternal employment.

The link between this research and the WSJ quote above is pretty clear, except for one glaring difference. The WSJ (who knows their audience) mentions “one parent who doesn’t work” as a potential variable. The original research, however, controls for maternal employment. Not “dual parental employment”. Not even  maternal and paternal employment separately. It’s all about whether the mother has a job or not.

It’s reasonable to consider how parents’ work arrangements could affect the data. But by choosing only maternal employment as a variable, the researchers are assuming that it is only the woman’s decision to work (not the man’s) that may influence family meals and well-being.

Even worse, if you open the tables attached to the article, they go beyond just maternal employment. They actually correlate “mother starts work” and “mother quits work” with increases and decreases in depressive behaviors. Also, the research paper cites numerous other research on maternal employment and child health. Apparently there is an entire field of study dedicated to whether women’s employment – not the parents’ combined work arrangement – is bad for their children.

Are we really still asking that question?


Image courtesy GranniesKitchen via Flickr. License