Do long maternity leaves hurt kids?

A new study shows that extending your maternity leave can damage finances and leave kids worse off.


(Photo: John Rowley/Mood Board/Rex Features/CP)

In October, newly appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will undertake one of her most ambitious projects yet: she is going to become a mother. Her commitment to take only a few weeks’ maternity leave sparked a media flurry that taught her mothering lesson No. 1—all parental decisions are open to public scrutiny.

In Canada, the expansion of parental leave to 50 weeks in 2001 gave mothers, and fathers, greater freedom to care for their very young children. At the same time, it set up the expectation that all mothers would take full advantage of the leave. After all, what good mother would choose to be working when she could be home caring for her newborn? The intuitive feeling is that more maternity leave is always better; but new research suggests that may not always be the case.

At around the time maternity leave was expanded, I was volunteering as a leader for a new mothers’ discussion group in Kingston, Ont. The session was designed to help women share strategies for returning to work, but every time I led this group, the discussion found its way to this one topic—dealing with the shame mothers feel, knowing that if it were up to them, they would already be back at work.

Economists treat parental leave, both for women and men, as a simple cost-benefit problem: in theory, at least, if a woman’s wage is greater than the cost of replacing her in the home, then she should spend her time working and hire someone else to care for her children.

In reality, of course, the calculation is far more complex.

The law can protect parents from being fired for taking time off to care for their children. But there is no law that can prevent that time off from eroding their income and human capital.

Educated women in skilled employment are particularly ill-served in this respect. The decision to take a year-long maternity leave can lower a women’s income over her lifetime, even if government and employer programs maintain a steady income during that leave.

Paid caregivers and family members are imperfect substitutes for maternal care, so the true “cost” of employment has to include the negative effect on children as a result of lost time with their mothers.

But claiming that children are disadvantaged when their mothers don’t take a full maternity leave, however, is a little bit like claiming that being sexually active is bad for teenagers—we all want to believe that supposition is true, but the credible research so far doesn’t actually support it.

New research published this summer by economists Christian Dustmann and Uta Schönberg in the American Economic Journal found that policies that increased maternity leave did little to increase children’s future educational achievement. In fact, they found that extending maternity leave from 18 to 36 months actually decreased the kids’ future educational attainment—presumably because time out of the workforce hurt family income in the long term, making it harder for children to continue on to post-secondary education.

Canadian economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan also found diminishing returns after Canadian parental-leave benefits were increased; whether their mothers stayed home or worked, children up to age three showed the same health, motor and social skills and cognition.

The bottom line is, no matter their income or education level, if going back to work improves mothers’ income and quality of life in the long term, their children are likely to do better.

Personally, the media circus that followed Marissa Meyer’s announcement reminds me of a friend who used to descend into a state of melancholy over this question: Can any of us really ever be a “good mother”? To me, there’s an easy answer: if a woman makes choices that maximize her family’s collective welfare, then it’s impossible for her to be anything but a good mother. It may not be a popular perspective, but for some women, being the better mother means returning to work long before the maternity-leave clock runs out.

Marina Adshade is a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Economics