The Mom Dilemma

The idea of the apple not falling far from the tree tends to apply to women in the workforce. Whether they realize it or not, working and stay-at-home mothers have an impact on their daughter’s career aspirations starting in adolescence.

Working mothers are said to raise daughters who not only enter the workforce, but excel in it. A 2015 study by the Harvard Business School found that the daughters of working mothers are more likely to have jobs, hold supervisory responsibility in those occupations and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full-time. In the United States, daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than their peers who were raised by stay-at-home mothers.

It didn’t matter to us if she worked for a few months one year, or worked 60 hours per week during your whole childhood,” said Kathleen McGinn, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the study. “We weren’t interested in whether your mom was an intense professional, but rather whether you had a role model who showed you that women work both inside and outside the home.”

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Yet, there are more factors that influence a child’s professional future than just growing up with a working or stay-at-home mother—experts point to a mother’s attitude as having a critical effect as well.

“If a mother is authentic and has beliefs and values like commitment and perseverance in the role she chooses, that is what really impacts her daughter,” said Dr. Fred Zelinger, a psychologist based in Cedarhurst.

These beliefs aren’t anything new. Sydney L. Altman and Frances Kaplan Grossman’s 1977 study Women’s Career Plans and Maternal Employment found that daughters who perceived their mothers as satisfied were more likely to accept their mothers’ roles for themselves than daughters who perceived their mothers as dissatisfied. Research that appeared in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research in 1978 supported this showing women with satisfied stay-at-home mothers often had low career aspirations.

“Moms who know they are fully in charge of their happiness and refuse to compromise their own happiness for anyone or anything feel more empowered, self-assured, self-confident and manage their families with that strength,” said Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist based in Queens.

Both roles come with their own stresses. Working mothers, for example, can get stressed juggling breakfast demands, dressing their children and getting them to school on time, all while trying to arrive promptly to their job, according to the US National Library of Medicine. These mothers are also pressed for time to look after the home and deal with childcare costs. Being a stay-at-home mom requires a lot more activity than it did even a decade ago. Women are expected to engage through social media in some form, or stay in touch with former colleagues to keep future prospects open, explained Dr. Hafeez. “You balance a virtual checkbook, so it feels like you are in an office anyway.” Stay-at-home moms who gave up their career, she added, can also begin to feel guilty for not being ready to return to work. “Such conflict is not new but it carries a slightly different connotation with it, one that suggests that women have to be well-trained to be stay-at-home moms, making it feel like a highly unpaid job.”

Attitudes toward gender roles should also be taken into account. Adolescents’ Expectations About Mothers’ Employment, a study published by Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. in 2006, explained that an adolescent girl with a more egalitarian mother was more than twice as likely to expect a quick return to work after the birth of a baby. They were also less likely to stay at home full-time, compared to those with less egalitarian mothers.

Nonetheless, mothers aren’t the only factor that comes into play. Socialization in early adolescence can have a significant impact on a person’s attitudes. Dr. Hafeez explained girls often begin to realize whether or not they want to follow in their mother’s footsteps during this time period. Around age 13—and sometimes as early as age 11—pre-teens and teens start to bond with their peers and become exposed to varying opinions that may not match their mothers. “This is normal and it’s part of adolescent growth as they begin to see themselves as separate from their parents, especially mom,” Hafeez said.

Baerbel Kracke’s 2002 study published in the Journal of Adolescence stated that frequent conversations with peers about career-related issues were associated with the exploration of occupational information.

A daughter may start to explore what interests her and may express that she wants to move away to study or may not want to go to college, Hafeez explained. “This is when mothers have the opportunity to lead by example, be firm with ‘house rules’ and create an atmosphere where self reliance, respect of the family code of conduct and values are defined.”