Work It, Mama – The Positive Effects of Working Mothers on Their Kids

by Christen Sproule


All working mothers remember that day.  You’ve been home with your newborn for months, responding to her every need and soaking in every smile.  Then . . . your maternity leave is up.  You bring your darling to daycare on that first morning you return to work, lugging a bag full of bottles and tiny diapers.  You reluctantly hand her off to the loving caregiver.  You desperately kiss her goodbye a thousand times.  And then you ugly sob in your car in the parking lot.  Working. Mom. Guilt. 

A recent and groundbreaking study by Harvard Business School Professor Kathleen McGinn should relieve at least some of that guilt caused by the stigma in our society that mothers hurt their children by going to work.  McGinn and her research team used data from two cross-national surveys of 50,000 men and women across 24 countries conducted in 2002 and 2012.  Verdict: The children who grew up with working moms are JUST AS HAPPY as the children of moms who stayed at home. 

Not only are they just as happy, but, in some ways, the children of working mothers are better off, even after controlling for the level of the mother’s education, and even whether the mother had a high-skill or low-skill job.  Both sons and daughters of working moms tend to have significantly more education than the children of stay-at-home moms.  Working mothers’ sons tend to have more egalitarian gender views, tend to marry partners who also work, and spend more time caring for family members and doing household work.    

Importantly, the effect of working mothers on their daughters is even more substantial and essential.  McGinn’s previous research, with Katherine Milkman of Wharton Business School, found that female attorneys are more likely to rise through the ranks of a firm (and less likely to leave) when they have female partners as mentors and role models.  So, McGinn wondered, does having such a role model at home have the same effect on a daughter?  Yes.  The daughters of working moms are more likely to work themselves, hold more supervisory responsibilities, and tend to make more money as adults—on average 23% more.  They also spend an hour less per week on housework than the daughters of stay-at-home moms.  McGinn found that working mothers shape their daughters’ ideas about the role of women in society and provide role models for their girls to emulate.  Those daughters grow up believing that employment is compatible with motherhood because they saw their mothers successfully juggle a complex life and competing demands, and those women know that they didn’t suffer for it. 

Thus, working mothers are changing how society treats and values its women—one child at a time.  “There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother,” says McGinn.  And that’s nothing to feel guilty about.  


Christen A. Sproule is co-chair of the WLALA 100th Anniversary Committee. Ms. Sproule is a Deputy City Attorney in the Criminal Appellate Section of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Los Angeles City Attorney or any other governmental entity.