Most women in the U.S. — 71% of mothers with children ages 18 and under — work outside the home.
Yet working mothers often feel pressure from many sides — 60% of U.S. adults still believe a child fares better with one parent at home.
But when I asked the grown-up children who were raised by working mothers, I got a different story.
According to them, their mothers prepared them well for successful, well-rounded adult lives.
This was especially true for daughters.
I’m a working mother who raised two children, one of whom is now a working mother herself, so I know we often feel guilty. But when I interviewed scores of grown children and working mothers, and surveyed more than 1,000 people ages 23–44, I learned that there’s no need to feel guilt.
Another validation for working mothers is a recent study from Harvard Business School, which found that in the U.S., women whose mothers worked earn 23% more than women whose mothers don’t, and men whose mothers worked spent more time helping out at home. The researchers stated that growing up with a working mother is an ideal way to narrow the gender gap.
The research I conducted was for my book, My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know. It showed definitively that many daughters benefit from having a working mother.
Here are five of the many ways:
“It was an inspiration to me that my mother worked. I have huge respect for her,” recalled one daughter of growing up with a working mother.
I found that working mothers have a special impact on their daughters. In my survey, more than half (53%) of daughters strongly agreed they were proud of their working mother.
An interesting statistic: another 20% of the daughters said they’d never even thought about their mother working, because the fact that she worked was just a normal part of life.
2. Strong work ethic
Grown children of working mothers — sons and daughters — said things like, “My mother never preached to us, but she taught us the importance of having a strong work ethic by demonstrating it every day.”
The survey results showed that while growing up, children tend to respect and appreciate the work their mothers do at home and on the job.
50% of the daughters said their working mother had been very helpful in instilling a strong work ethic, versus 32% of daughters whose mothers stayed at home.
The working mothers interviewed spoke about the desire to give their children the skills to weather problems and difficult situations.
As one mother said of her daughter, “I wanted her to be able to handle anything that comes her way. I wanted her to be resilient. You never know what is going to happen.”
Working mothers seemed to feel more strongly about resilience than mothers who stayed at home: 47% of the daughters with working mothers strongly agreed their mothers had taught them resilience, as opposed to 35% of the daughters whose mothers stayed at home.
An adult daughter told me, “Mom was less involved, and since my sister and I were not micromanaged, we became more independent.”
But it wasn’t just that a working mother wasn’t around all the time that resulted in children becoming more independent: working mothers encouraged independence in their children. As a result, 56% of daughters of working mothers said their mother had been very helpful in teaching her to be independent. Only 35% of daughters whose mothers stayed at home answered that in the affirmative.
5. A first and lifelong mentor
One adult daughter said her mother had become an even more valuable mentor as she got older: “Through all of my job searches and the setback of being laid off, [my mother] keeps telling me she has experienced these personally. She is more supportive now than she ever has been.”
In the survey, 35% of daughters said their working mother was very helpful in providing a sounding board, versus 24% of daughters whose mothers stayed at home.
Whether a mother works or not is her own choice.
But if she works, she should not be worried about the impact on her children.
Working mothers are doing a great job preparing their children for life. For daughters especially, a working mother is an original role model. Rather than feel guilty, working mothers should feel proud of themselves, because certainly the children are proud of their mothers.
Pamela F. Lenehan was one of the first female partners on Wall Street, a former C-suite executive of an NYSE company and a high tech start-up. An avid believer in the power of women to lead as well as parent, she serves on the boards of three publicly traded firms, and is also the author of “What You Don’t Know and Your Boss Won’t Tell You: Advice from Senior Female Executives on What You Need to Succeed.” Her new book is My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know.