Fact: Working moms are good for kids. Stop the guilt!

mom and her baby


A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 60 percent of Americans believe children are better off when a parent is at home, and only 21 percent of adults say the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home has been good for society.

Therein lies the paradox of our time: While a majority of Americans believe that children fare better when their mothers stay home full-time, the majority of American moms work.

But take heart, working moms: Science is on our side. Studies show mothers, children, and marriages benefit when moms work and earn.

harvard mcginn

Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn

In this episode, I interview Kathleen McGinn, Harvard Business School professor behind the recent Harvard study of 50,000 adults from 25 countries that found growing up with a working mother improves future prospects, especially for adult daughters who grow up to earn more, and sons grow into men who spend more time on child and home care. Prepare to have your guilt assuaged and mind BLOWN!

“What this research says to us is that not only are you helping your family economically—and helping yourself professionally and emotionally if you have a job you love—but you’re also helping your kids,” says McGinn. “So I think for both mothers and for fathers, working both inside and outside the home gives your kids a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable, for both men and women. In short, it’s good for your kids.”

Learn more on this article about McGinn here on the Working Moms Mean Business.


This is a special episode from the Working Moms Mean Business series, brought to you in partnership with BBVA Compass. I am so proud to be part of this project that explores the triumphs and challenges of professional moms (after all, 70 percent of moms with children under age 18 work!).

Explore the 10 special Working Moms Mean Business podcast episodes here.

working mom guilt

Read or download the free (mega) book written by me:Free from Guilt: Why Moms Have it, and How to Conquer It,which is all about why so many of us struggle with being working moms, even though most of us need to work to live, and science says kids, families, marriage, society and moms thrive when we work. 



Other episodes in the series:

Dealing with the staggering costs of child care

Rachel Cruze: #blessed vs BLESSED

How moms can be killer at business and MOMMING 

Are breadwinner moms good for families?

Can moms close the gender gap in STEM fields?

Samantha Ettus: Stop feeling guilty, work is good for you


Full transcript of the Like a Mother interview with Katleen McGinn

Emma: Despite widespread assumptions that it actually harms children when their mothers work outside the home, recent studies have found that not to be the case. A recent Harvard study found that growing up with a working mother is unlikely to harm children socially and economically when they become adults, and it actually improves future prospects, especially for adult daughters of mothers who worked outside the home before the daughters were 14 years old. In this episode, I interview Kathleen McGinn, the Harvard Business School professor, a mother herself, and we discuss the challenges and positives of mothers who work.

I’m very excited about our next guest who is Kathleen McGinn. She is professor of business administration Harvard Business School. Kathleen, thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited about your study which I’ve read about in many, many places. I think every single working mother is excited and thrilled to read about the results, which found that working mothers are great for their children. I know that your study got tons of media attention and I was just hoping we could dig in a little bit about the findings and some of the takeaway. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about what motivated you to do this study in the first place?

Kathleen: A bit of research that started in the 70’s looked at positive effects of maternal employment on daughter’s aspirations. That research kind of went away, and instead, scholars started looking at maternal employment in early years and looking just at its effects on very, very young children. That research basically showed that there is very little effect. There’s some positive effect, especially for lower income mothers and lower-income children. But there was essentially no conversation going on about the effects of maternal employment, or employed moms on the long-term effects of their kids. That seemed to be the really, really important question, so that’s why we turned to it. The other thing we wanted to look at is to look beyond the United States. So much of this research is done just in the States, so we wanted to see if there were larger effects that held across multiple countries.

Emma: Great, and so in a nutshell you found what?

Working moms raise girls who achieve academically and professionally, and sons care more for family members

Kathleen: We found that daughters that are raised by moms who were employed outside the home for at least a year while the daughter was 14 years or younger, those daughters are more likely to be employed as adults; they are working more hours, they earn more money, and they’re more likely to hold fewer hours of housework. Then we turn to look at sons. What about adult sons? Well, it turns out that being raised by an employed mom doesn’t have any effect on the employment of an adult son. They’re just as likely to work, earn the same amount of money, etc. But it does affect how much time they spend caring for family members at home. Adult sons of moms who were employed, spend more time each week caring for family members than sons of moms who stayed at home full-time. That’s the pattern of effects, and we talk about how that pattern varies from country to country, but the overall pattern is that employed moms effect daughter’s employment outcomes and son’s domestic outcomes.

Emma: What I hear you saying is that the disparity in the workplace closes, and the disparity in work at home closes when mothers work outside the home, long-term for their children.

Kathleen: It narrows. Closes would be an overstatement.

Why do we still cling to the SAHM fantasy?

Emma: That would be my aspiration. I’m projecting my goals on your study. Fast forward 200 years and it’s closed. So, kind of this overreaching umbrella of the work that I do is constantly examining this idea, because I think it is a fantasy that we have in this country, in the United States that this full-time, devoted, stay at home mother is the better mother. Research like yours is so critical. I just do so many dances of joy when it’s published because it suggests the contrary. We know that women are happier when they work at least part-time, we now know that children fare better long term when their mothers work, it’s better for marriages, it’s better for the economy. All these indicators suggest that women are inclined to, and people are happier when moms work, but we still hold so tight to this notion of the stay at home mom, and guilt ensues when we do work. Where does that come from? Why are we still clinging to this notion?

Women love raising children, AND working for pay

Kathleen: Well, both parts are fun. It turns out that raising children has lots of wonderful aspects to it and when we leave home every morning, we move away from those wonderful aspects. It also turns out that raising children has lots of challenging aspects to it, and it would be really nice to have 48 hours in every day. It also turns out that there are really wonderful things about working and lots of women have careers that they enjoy, and lots of women enjoy being able to earn their own living. But, there’s also lots of challenging things about going to work every day.

So, scholars talk about what’s called approach/avoid conflict and that is when you want to approach something, but you simultaneously want to avoid it. Everybody wants to spend more time with their kids, but sometimes that’s tough, and most people enjoy many aspects of their job, but sometimes that’s tough. So, you have these two, sort of conflicting things, that you can do with your life and when you’re having a rough time on one, you go, “What the heck am I doing working? I could be home with my kids.” And when you’re having a rough time with your kids, you’re like, “What am I doing here?” So, this approach/avoid conflict is sort of fed by the social discourse around mothers should be at home.

You have a natural internal conflict that’s fed by a societal discourse. It’s not at all surprising that that leads to people feeling guilty. It’s really interesting some of the effects that for men who say, “Women should just get over it, they shouldn’t feel guilty.” The deal is that men aren’t told by society to feel guilty. So, for them, it seems kind of like a mystery. Why are these women feeling guilty when they leave for work every day? Because they don’t have this ongoing voice in their head saying you should be at home, you should be at home, you should be at home. Because that’s where it comes from.

Emma: I get that. One thing I will challenge you on, I don’t think it’s all about us feeling like we want to spend more time. I will say that I don’t always want to spend more time with my kids.

Kathleen: I don’t think any of this is always. I totally agree with you.

Emma: But I think what you just said is the assumption that we’re all just craving so many more precious moments with our kids. There’s not that many precious moments. There’s a few precious moments and a lot of it is just hanging around and yelling at them.

Kathleen: Yeah, I think that varies a lot, woman to woman.

Emma: It does.

Kathleen: And parent to parent, and child to child. Part of the guilt comes from wanting to leave, and part of the guilt comes from not wanting to leave. And the measures of that vary with every parent/child pair.

Emma: I guess my big hangup, I get that disconnect between societal pressure and our own inclinations and needs. The idea that all of us have a choice not to work, a quarter of moms in this country are unmarried moms who absolutely have to work, and the majority of married moms need to work so that we even have a choice and a say on so many levels. Where does the societal pressure come from? The study that I often cite in my work, it’s a survey from Pew a few years ago, found that 40 percent Americans believe it actually harms children. Harms them, when mothers work. Why are we clinging on to that when A- most of us need to work and the science suggests that it’s not better for anybody when we’re staying home full-time.

Kathleen: Well, there were decades of studies and tried to show, and showed in various ways that you can identify a harm here, a harm there. So, there was a feeding of that discourse. The other thing is, is that it’s only been a short time in history that people have been working outside the home in the way that we do now and an even shorter time in history that women have been doing it. It’s not that strange that people cling to something that is common in the past.

Emma: Yeah, I understand, I hear you on that.

Kathleen: It’s a very common thing. I wanted to talk about one other piece of what you said. It’s not that employed moms are better moms, employed moms have daughters that are more likely to be like them in the sense of they’re more likely to go to work, and they’re more likely to hold supervisor responsibility. They’re less likely to spend all their time doing housework, and employed moms have sons who are more like them too, in the sense that they’re involved in family care. What we didn’t find after you controlled for all of those things, and you’re absolutely right that women who work are happier, etc. but after you control for all of those things, employed moms don’t have happier sons or daughters. They also, really importantly, don’t have less happy adult sons or daughters. That sort of happiness that comes from being raised by an employed mom comes from being able to pursue the things that you care about.

Fueling the mommy wars?

You’re also right that lots of women have to work. Some women choose to work. I think the important thing for us to move toward as a society is to allow that to not have pressure either way. I don’t want to be part of the mommy wars telling moms that they should be working if that’s not something that their family needs, and it’s not something that they prefer to do, but simultaneously, we shouldn’t be constantly pressuring moms who either choose to work or have to work, but instead they should be staying home for some reason because there’s nothing to show that there’s any long-term problem as a result of it.

Emma: I hear you on that. How do you explain that gap in research? You said in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of focus on gender and aspirations, but then it shifted to this focus on early childhood development and the mother’s work effects on that. How do you explain that trend?

Kathleen: I don’t know. I’m glad that it’s shifting back. The 70s were more liberal than the 80s and 90s. Research reflects societal values. In the 60s and 70s, women’s suffrage was very much a positive cause. By the time we got to the late 80s, as women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, there was a pushback on that. There was a pushback at home, and there was a pushback in organizations. That reflected that pushback.

Emma: Got it. So, when your most recent study came out last year, you mentioned you’re surprised by men’s response who said, “Why don’t you just stop being guilty ladies?” I respect that. They’re just coming from their own experience. What else? What was some of the general sentiments that struck you in response to this new research?

Kathleen: Well, the biggest thing is what you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation and that is the loads of moms who just wrote and said thank you. From various countries in various languages. So, it’s just nice to see that I’m not having a negative effect on my kids in the long run, and in fact, there’s lots of really positive effects I’m having on the kids. That was by far the most frequent response. There was quite understandably a pushback from people in families whose moms weren’t employed, who said, “Look, my mom is great and I love having her at home.” Or, “Look, I’m a full-time stay at home mom. I’m fully committed to this, and I don’t appreciate being told that my kids would be better off if I were employed.”

Emma: Well, what do you say to that as a scientist? All you did was run the numbers.

Kathleen: Absolutely, but what I say is my research does not show that your children are, and I’m going to put this in quotation marks, “better off.” What it shows, again the risk of repeating myself, what it shows is the daughters of employed moms do better in the workplace, and sons with employed moms spend more time with their families. Whether that’s better off or not, depends on your definition. I also say that there’s lot of things that moms who decide to stay home full time can do to make sure that their kids are exposed to alternative gender role models.

It helps when girls are exposed to other gender models, even if their moms stay home

I have a colleague Claudia Olivetti, and her co-authors show that even if you’re a full-time stay at home mom, your daughters are more likely to be employed if their friend’s moms are employed. We find in our own research that our effects are strongest in countries where fewer women are employed. When there’s lots of women employed, then your daughters are getting the signal that it’s okay to go to work and it’s okay to be in a position of power, from lots of other people around them. It’s not as if being a full-time stay at home mom is a harmful thing. What you have to do when you’re a full-time stay at home mom is think about ways to expose your kid to other models. Just like what you have to do when you’re a full-time employed mom, is you deal with other issues like, what are your kids going to do when you’re not home? Both of those choices are reasonable choices, but they call for different strategies to, in some sense, make up for what you’re not doing.

Emma: I’m just thinking my life because I have a big career and it’s a huge part of my identity and I talk about this with my kids all the time, I’m very proud of it. I’m thinking about this as you’re speaking and I’m thinking, well maybe there’s parts of life that my kids aren’t getting from me. My daughter is eight, and she’s like, “You know what, you should teach me how to do laundry.” Because I outsource that. She should know how to do laundry, and arguably be doing her own laundry.

Kathleen: I agree.

Emma: Maybe I’ve jumped my own shark and I’ve become so efficient at outsourcing so I can have this big career, that my kids don’t know how to take care of themselves.

Kathleen: Absolutely. It’s not surprising that daughters of employed moms spend less time doing housework. That’s not what they saw. I have a wonderful daughter who is 24 years old now, she’s in med school, and housework is not her specialty. She’s’ not good at it, I didn’t teach it to her. When she was leaving for college I actually had a crisis. I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m not sure that she is going to be good at cleaning and cooking and all of those things. Then, just to show me that I was wrong, she became a nanny the summer after freshman year, and cooked, and cleaned, and took care of three kids and a dog.

Emma: That’s her teenage rebellion.

Kathleen: Yes, exactly.

Emma: That was her teenage rebellion, being domestic.

Kathleen: Exactly. But you’re exactly right that you can only model so many things for your kids. If you think it’s important, and you’re not modeling it, you have to figure out where else they’re going to get it. That’s true for employed moms and it’s true for moms who stay at home full-time, and it’s true for dads. If you want your kid to be an athlete and you don’t have time to play sports with them, then you have to figure out where they’re going to get that experience. If you want your kid to know how to cook, and you come home and make a salad every night, well then you have to figure out how they’re going to learn how to cook. If you want your kid to see how to balance a life that involves both full-time employment and full engagement with your family, then you have to figure out how to get all of those pieces in their life too. It is a full and rich life that employed moms have, and a full and rich life that full time stay at home moms have. Neither of those is perfection. All of those require that we think about what our kids need and make sure that they get it.

Emma: What I’m hearing you say, I find very liberating, because I feel so much pressure for the parents, specifically the mothers usually, to be everything for kids. That is just unprecedented in history, and unrealistic. Even a couple generations ago, there was more a nuclear family, multi-generation families living closer together. I’m just thinking and referencing my own childhood, I would spend time with my grandparents on their farm and I learned about canning vegetables, and I learned to sew from my grandparents, and then I’d learn things from my parents, and some things from my aunts and uncles. This was my network of learning, and I’m sure behavioral things and manner things in life lessons, less tangible things too. Now, my kids live very differently. I live in a city far from most of my family. I’m divorced. It’s like a lot of it is just my pressure on me. If I don’t teach my daughter to do laundry, nobody else is going to do it. It’s all on me.

“It’s very liberating for me as a mom to hear you say, it’s not enough. You’re not enough and that’s normal.”

It’s very liberating for me as a mom to hear you say, it’s not enough. You’re not enough and that’s normal. Go and find the coach because you’re not a soccer player. Go and find the working mom because you’re not a working mom. I mean, it’s normal and natural to seek outside influences on our children.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I was giving a talk a couple months ago to a few hundred, very high level, executive women. We brought three women and their adult children to come up on the stage with me and we had a discussion. The final question that I asked these adult children was, “Now that you can look back on your life, and you had this mom that had this high-powered career, and she wasn’t home that much and lots of outsource, etc., what advice would you give her?” One woman had two kids there and the other each had one, to a person, each of one of the adult kids said, “Chill out, I’m doing great. And every time you start to go off on, I should have done this, I should have done that, what you’re saying to me is that I’m not enough, and I’m feeling good about things.”

All of us kind of looked at each other and said, “Really? That’s your advice? Chill out? We were sort of expecting like, you could have done this, and if you had done that, etc.” We had sort of given them the questions ahead of time, so by the last one they’re going, “Well, that’s the same thing I was going to say. Stop stressing.”

Emma: Really what you said I think is most critical, is that the kids said, “When you stress about your parenting, me as the child, I hear that I’m not good enough.”

Kathleen: Yeah.

Emma: That’s powerful. That’s big. Wow.

Kathleen: It was really eye-opening for me.

Emma: Tell me, you’re a mom, and your daughter is in med school now. She figured out how to do her laundry and to cook some basic meals, so high five. You did good. And you’ve obviously had a very successful career yourself and a demanding profession that’s male-dominated, academia, economics, and business. What’s your point of reference? Did you feel guilty about working?

Even experts struggle with mom guilt

Kathleen: I had one daughter, she was an easy kid. Her father is a great dad. I really have always loved my career. I’ve always loved spending time with her. There were difficult years, you know teenagers are teenagers. But my perspective was I always wanted to spend more time with her, and I always wanted to spend more time at work. That sort of felt like the best of both worlds. I felt like if I got to the point where I was sitting at work wishing I were at home, or if I were sitting at home wishing I were at work, I would have been out of whack. For me, both of them were just really big holes. Again, I have a career that I love, and a single daughter who has really been a very easy kid. I don’t want to speak my experience for everyone.

Emma: No, I don’t think you are. That’s all these things are is individual experiences. I hear that you’re grateful and it sounds like you had a great co-parent. But it was real for you too, that pull. Would you call it working mom guilt, that you experienced?

Kathleen: No, I do call it pull, though. I, most days, wished I had another 10 hours so that I could have done each for five hours more. I do remember at some point in time, she had this idyllic view. I don’t know whether she was eight or 10, or something, and she was like, “Mom, I want you to stay home full-time and homeschool me.”

Emma: Oh, gosh.

Kathleen: And I was like, “Oh no, you really don’t.” I would be so bad. I’m really lucky, she had incredible caretakers. Women who are still a part of her life. So, we’re very, very lucky that way. You know, more on my personal experience. I’m one of five children raised by a full-time, stay at home mom. She was an incredibly powerful woman. She and my dad had what was a very equal partnership. It doesn’t have to be, again what we were talking about earlier, it doesn’t have to be that you role model only through employment, but employment is a very good way to role model to your kids that women don’t have to be these pegged into only one role in life.

Emma: I feel like that’s so true. Hollywood is sort of attacking that. Women are only one of five archetypes. The high-powered business suit, Wall Street executive, or you’re the passive, stay at home mom. Right? Come on. We’re living a reality where it’s a hodgepodge of all of that.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Emma: Well, I said you know my poor children don’t know how to wash their laundry in an electronic, digital machine because their mom works too much. That’s a first world problem.

Kathleen: I was going to say, some of those electronic machines do take advanced degrees.

Emma: So, I just was picking up on something. You said that you made things work for you because you invested in really wonderful caregivers for your kids, who were part of your village. That’s what I advocate in my work. These babysitters become really wonderful, positive, influences on their children. It’s not like second-rate versions of ourselves.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Then because I had just one child, her friends become part of my village. Her friends are now adults who come over and hang out at our house, even though she’s gone. She doesn’t live here anymore, but the village continues to have sort of expanding ripples that are wonderful. I think one of the really tough things that families go through is ongoing movement. When parent’s careers mean that the kids are in different places at multiple times, the kids sort of lose their villages, and the parents sort of lose their villages, and I see that with lots of my colleagues and lots of women in their stories. They just keep moving and every time they move, they have to re-establish that whole system. That’s hard for full-time stay at home moms, it’s hard for kids, and it’s hard for employed moms and dads. One of the things that we were lucky about is that I’ve been here since my daughter was two. So, the village has grown and grown. I think it’s not incorrect to quote Clinton on, “It takes a village.” That’s right.

Emma: Yes. What’s the takeaway here? The takeaway, what I’m hearing you say, is working mom guilt, it’s understandable and yet try not to have it. I guess I’m quoting all the men who responded to your study. Just get over it, little ladies. I talk about this all the time in my work, constantly, and I suffer from it myself. So, school me here, Kathleen. How do I get over working mom guilt?

Kathleen: It’s not as easy as get over it. One thing to do would be to talk with adult kids of employed moms and listen to their stories. Another is to listen to your kid. What is your kid asking for? What’s the real things your kid is asking for? What do they actually need? And try to make sure that you’re supplying that. Then, enjoy your life. That’s the best possible model you can have for your kids. Your kids are going to be much happier if you’re engaged in a full rich life that you see the positive things about. If you focus on all the negative things about your life, what do your kids have a choice to focus on but that?

Emma: That is so beautiful. Thank you. Kathleen McGinn, Harvard Business School. Your work is so important, thank you so much.

Kathleen: Thank you, very much.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

1 Comment

  1. Vanessa on May 11, 2018 at 11:35 pm

    Here’s a thought – what if the guilt that we feel is just sort of built in to our bodies? What if we felt guilty 1,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago in a paleo sort of way. Was it there to make us keep an eye on the offspring and not wander off for too long? I don’t know that I am all that susceptible to societal messages (maybe I’m wrong) but I sure have the same feeling that I am doing things wrong even when I can see that we have done a pretty good job of child raising. Watching my children grow has confirmed for me that many of our behaviors are really biological.

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