The march of women into the workforce is the greatest social revolution of our century. Suzanne Franks wonders why so little adequate research has been done on the effects this is having on childrenby Suzanne Franks / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Never mind whether or not feminism is dead. Who really cares? The burning question for the increasing number of women who work is what is happening to our children. Forget fathers. There is no term “working father,” for men still are their work. And conversely a man with no work is not really a man-and increasingly less desirable as a father. No, this is a woman’s problem.
“Missing Mum,” the Panorama programme, drew inappropriate conclusions from some questionable data. But it is absurd that unpublished research about working class family life in Barking and Dagenham based on teenage diaries can provoke such hysteria. The response to the programme demonstrated once again what a volatile reaction is produced by the combination of motherhood and paid work. Like it or not-and there were many reasons for not liking it-the programme filled a vacuum. The uncomfortable fact is that there is virtually no research in Britain into the longterm effects of working parents on children’s educational achievement and emotional health.
According to Ceridwen Roberts, of the Family Policy Studies Centre, we are currently living through a gigantic social experiment in “other care” and no substantial research is going on in Britain into the effect on children of two parents working on this scale. The gap is filled with rhetoric from all sides, like the best selling work of Amitai Etzioni, The Parenting Deficit.
There are small and piecemeal studies from bodies such as the Thomas Coram Institute on the effects of different forms of childcare. The academic consensus from the bulk of these studies seems to be that consistent and high quality non-maternal care, when not used excessively, probably has no adverse effects. (The latest report from the British Household Survey at Essex University finds that a child of 14 with a working mother suffers no adverse educational effect.)
But truly meaningful data would require a survey that observed family patterns, working parents and the progress of their children over several years, from early development to exam results. It would also have to account for a range of other factors, including socio-economic status, family background and the quality of care which the children received.
The absence of such work in this field is puzzling. Might it be that there is a fear of finding the “wrong” answers? For feminists, after all, having children was generally a disagreeable activity, best avoided. Women who…