What contributes most to a nurturing home environment for three- to five-year-old children of single working mothers? A new University of Illinois study reports that the mother's education is the most important factor, followed by her employment in jobs that offer either standard daytime hours or some flexibility.
"If young single mothers had even one more year of school, they did much better in terms of parent-child relationships," said Christy Lleras, a U of I assistant professor of human and community development.
"Mothers with more schooling may also be better able to find jobs that pay higher wages and allow them to work a daytime shift or have predictable work schedules with some flexibility, which is important with preschool children," she said.
Moms who work nonstandard hours--evening or night shifts or weekends--may face more difficulty finding reliable, high-quality care for their children while they are at work, she said.
Mothers with children under five are now the fastest-growing segment of the female labor force. In the past decade, huge changes in welfare policy have resulted in increased pressure for low-income single mothers to work, she said.
According to Lleras, work conditions and their effects on the home environment are a concern because most emotional and social development of preschool children occurs in the home. A nurturing early home life has also been linked to positive educational outcomes and positive relationship outcomes for kids in later life, she said.
Lleras's study followed 737 single mothers, 417 of them employed, in a national sample taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1990, 1992, and 1994, in the years before welfare reform was enacted. The mothers ranged in age from 25 to 32 years.
"It's the last time we have a national picture of single working mothers before welfare reform, which occurred in 1996," she said. "After that, it became very difficult to compare working and non-working moms because states adopted these reforms at different rates and also enforced them at varying levels," she said.
The survey included in-home observers who rated the home environment. Included were such measures as maternal warmth and responsiveness (does the mom talk to the child, hug and kiss him, respond when he asks a question?), cognitive stimulation (is the mom teaching her child shapes and colors, does she read to the child at least three times a week, are there 10 or more books in the home, is there a music player?), and physical environment (does the play area appear clean, safe, light, uncluttered?).
In one part of the study, Lleras compared employed moms to unemployed moms, expecting to find that working moms would be able to create better home environments. That didn't happen.
"Much of the literature on maternal employment suggests that working increases income and enhances self-esteem. These factors are then thought to influence parenting behavior. So I expected working status to be a significant predictor of improved home life, but single working moms really didn't get the boost I thought they'd get," she said.
"Instead it seems that for single mothers the benefits associated with paid employment are offset by the added difficulties that accompany working, such as less time spent with their children," she said.
However, job schedules did matter, and stable jobs on a day shift or with some flexibility--for example, a rotating shift--translated into a big boost in the home environment, said Lleras.
"Almost all the research on working moms has focused on number of hours worked per week and wages. But the flexibility of a rotating shift, which changes periodically from days to evenings to nights, may allow mothers to spend more time with their preschool children during waking hours. They have more time to form an attachment," she said.
"If you don't have stable day care, if you're relying on family and friends, a rotating shift may work for you because a friend or relative may be able to take care of the baby in the evening or at night even if these persons work during the day. Rotating shifts may provide just enough flexibility to allow a single mom to patch a reliable child-care schedule together," she said.
Lleras said her study highlights the need for flextime and standard working hours for single moms with preschool-aged children. The results also point to a growing need for high-quality, affordable day care that meets the needs of single working mothers who often work nonstandard hours, she said.
The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Family Issues.