Mom guilt over time away from kids is misplaced: Study

Study finds kids' well-being isn't affected by the amount of time mom spends with them—so give yourself a break from the mom guilt over that time you spend away from them.

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A study about the impact of time moms spend with their kids made headlines last week, with many articles suggesting that quality is more important than quantity—but researchers didn’t assess quality of time.

The study, published in the April issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, sought to answer a long-debated question at the heart of the Mommy Wars: “Does the amount of time kids spend with their moms affect their development?” The authors were surprised to discover that there’s no direct correlation between the amount of time mothers spend with their kids and how well they fare in the future—a revelation that will hopefully lessen the guilt working moms often feel. But there are other factors at play that could affect your child down the road.

To assess whether the time moms spent with their kids impacted the kids’ behavioural and emotional health and academic success, the study’s author’s looked at time diary and survey data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement, a US-wide study that looks at socioeconomics and health over the course of Americans’ lifetimes and generations. The study focused primarily on mothers because the authors wanted to test prevailing theories that moms are crucial to a child’s early years.

Co-author Melissa Milkie, a sociologist from the University of Toronto, was surprised that results that overall time spent with kids doesn’t make a difference later in life. In fact, the study’s authors found that children’s academic successes had more to do with their mother’s educational level and economic factors than it did with time spent together. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that tells mothers they are unique in their children’s lives and need to spend significant swathes of time with their kids to ensure future successes.

The bad news for frazzled parents, however, is that stress levels affect kids negatively. One of the clear findings from the study was that stress affects kids’ outcomes across the board, Milkie said in an interview. So rushing home from work to catch a few extra minutes with the kids may not be worth it if you can’t shake the anxiety of having a mile-long to-do list.

But Milkie believes that instead of parents putting even more pressure on themselves to figure out how to balance all their priorities, it’s time for workplaces and the community to step up. “The wider community should be supporting parents in their own lives and supporting with resources. This is what helps parents stay healthy and is what will help children stay healthy,” she said.

While the study didn’t look at how the quality of time spent with kids shapes them, Milkie says a lot of other research shows the importance of connecting with kids at all ages. “Parenting matters in a lot of different ways—not just in the sheer amount of time you spend with them,” she says. “The connections you make with your kids are really important—like sitting down, focusing and listening to them.”

This issue of time can be a very sore spot for women who never feel like they have enough of it to do mothering “right.” There are more working mothers than ever before, yet we spend more time with our kids today than women did in the ’60s. So where are we finding all this time to spend with our kids? The answer is that we sacrifice our relationships, sleep, community and our sense of self to maintain a certain standard of time spent with our kids—and the worst part is, it may not actually make any difference at all when it comes to raising healthy, happy and successful kids.

So put aside the mom guilt and focus on making the most of the time you do spend together.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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