Going back to work after being on maternity leave is often a source of guilt for many working moms. They worry about missing their child’s milestones and losing time to bond with their kids. Often, they fear that being away for too long will have a lasting negative effect on their children. But the reality is many moms and dads don’t have a choice but to go back to work.
The good news is — and you know this in your gut, working parents — you being away from your child does not have a detrimental effect on him as long as you invest in quality time. Researchers who have taken a look at how the emotional lives of children are affected by their parents’ careers back this up.
“For both mothers and fathers, we found that children’s emotional health was higher when parents believed that family should come first, regardless of the amount of time they spent working,” shares Steward D. Friedman, a Practice Professor of Management at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, in his article for Harvard Business Review. The results are based on his book with Jeffrey H. Greenhaus, Work and Family — Allies or Enemies? where they surveyed 800 business professionals.
According to their research, a parent’s happiness at work also had a direct effect on their kids. “We found children were better off when parents cared about work as a source of challenge, creativity, and enjoyment, again, without regard to the time spent,” Friedman adds. “And, not surprisingly, we saw that children were better off when parents were able to be physically available to them.”
Working long hours did not have a negative effect on children’s behavior except when their fathers were “overly involved psychologically in their careers” and were often distracted by their devices. This is supported by previous studies that show distracted parenting, which happens when parents spend too much time on their phone, can make children feel unimportant and neglected.
“A father’s psychological availability, or presence, which is noticeably absent when he is on his digital device, was linked with children having emotional and behavioral problems,” Friedman explained.
Interestingly, children were likely to demonstrate few behavior problems if both mother and father are performing well and feeling satisfied with their jobs. “We found that children benefit if their mothers have control over what happens to them when they are working,” Friedman says. “Having authority and discretion at work was associated with mentally healthier children.”
The biggest revelation was children are affected positively by their mothers who invested in time for relaxation and self-care. Though it meant less time with the kids, there was no ill effect as long as that time was spent on taking care of themselves. If mothers were overwhelmed by housework on top of their workload, their children are likely to exhibit behavior problems.
“Our research showed that taking time to care for themselves instead of on the additional labor of housework strengthens mothers’ capacities to care for their children,” says Friedman. “And fathers are better able to provide healthy experiences for their children when they are psychologically present with them and when their sense of competence and their well-being are enhanced by their work.”
Apart from Friedman’s research, studies have shown that having a mom who works can have long-lasting positive effects on their kids until they reach adulthood, including high-paying jobs and a desire to spend more time with their future children when the kids become working moms themselves. In addition, children who were raised by career-driven moms had no significant behavior, social, or learning problems and instead experienced academic success.
If you really care about how your work is affecting your children’s emotional and mental health, research shows it's important you find a job that you love and to explore all the ways you can be available to your child, not just physically but psychologically.
The secret? Knowing that mom and dad are willing to talk to the kids and listen when they need it makes a world of difference. “Amidst everyday life moments, parents can find numerous opportunities to attend to their children, connect with shared interests, and have loving, caring moments,” says another study. As always, quality of time trumps quantity.