Emory Report
October 6, 2008
Volume 61, Number 7



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October 6
, 2008
What about mom?

Sara Markowitz is associate professor, Department of Economics.

Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. As a mother and an economist, I can say with full conviction that time is the scarcest resource of all. Any working mom knows all too well the stresses and challenges that are involved in balancing work, home, and the care of young children. How many of us have wished for just one more hour in the day?

There are few public policies or programs available that can help with that juggling act, although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 has provided some help by guaranteeing 12 weeks of maternity leave for eligible new mothers.

The FMLA was groundbreaking in that it granted women the security to return to their jobs after childbirth. However, the leave is unpaid and only about 46 percent of the private sector workforce is entitled to FMLA benefits.

Many states have laws that are more generous than the federal leave law, and even a few states, California, Washington and New Jersey, provide paid leave for mothers. Other states are seeking to implement such programs.

Currently, Sen. Barack Obama is proposing to expand the FMLA to include more eligible employees. As policymakers consider expanded leave programs, it is important to understand the influence such policies can have on the health and well-being of families.

Like any good mother, researchers studying the effects of longer maternity leaves have put children first. A number of studies have examined how maternal employment after childbirth influences children’s health and development.

The bad news for us working moms is that this research typically finds that short maternity leave, and, more generally, full-time maternal employment during the first year of life, detract from children’s health, cognitive development, and behavioral outcomes. The good news is that high quality childcare and sensitive parenting attenuate the adverse effects of early maternal employment.

But what about mom? Few researchers have considered whether longer leaves benefit the mother. Is time away from work beneficial to the health and well-being of the mother, or is work an escape for the stress of caring for a newborn? Does paid versus unpaid leave matter? Does paternity leave have an effect on a mother’s health? These are some of the questions that I tackle in my current research with my coauthor, Pinka Chatterji of State University of New York, Albany.

In our research, we use a survey of over 3,000 new mothers to analyze how lengths of maternity and paternity leaves influence the mental and physical health of the mothers.

Mental health is measured with the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) of depressive symptoms. The CES-D is one of the most widely used psychiatric scales and captures mood, somatic problems, problems in interactions with others, and issues with motor functioning.

We analyze both a continuous version of the scale and a dichotomized version to indicate the presence of severe symptoms of depression. Overall health is measured with a self-reported question of whether the respondent’s health in general is excellent, very good, good, fair or poor.

Our estimation technique accounts for the possibility that there are unobserved factors that may simultaneously determine both length of maternity leave and health outcomes (such as the presence or absence of family support).

If not addressed, these factors could bias our estimates. Similarly, we also recognize that being in poor health may directly influence length of the leave. After addressing both of these sources of endogeneity, our results are striking: Longer lengths of paid and unpaid maternity leaves are associated with declines in depressive symptoms, reductions in the likelihood of severe depression, and improvements in overall maternal health.

We also find that among married mothers, having a spouse who did not take any leave is detrimental to the mother’s mental health and increases depressive symptoms. It is interesting to note that paternity leave is typically short, less than two weeks, although 87 percent of the husbands in our sample take a leave. The average length of maternity leave in our sample is just under 10 weeks.

This research points to the importance of longer maternity leaves for the health of new mothers. Policy makers considering expanding family leave programs can add the improvements to maternal health to the benefits of such programs. And from my personal experience, a healthy and happy mother is beneficial to
everyone in the family.