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Growing up with a lone mother in Scotland: the role of employment, childcare and family ties on children’s wellbeing

Increasing scholarly attention has focused on the link between family demography and inequalities, and its implications for children’s life courses. Children born from more disadvantaged families are more likely to experience family changes and structures that are associated with a loss of resources, such as their parents’ early and non-marital family formation, union instability and weaker labour market attachment. These experiences have important repercussions on children’s well-being and chances in life.
This study focuses on children growing up with a lone mother (either born to lone mothers or experiencing parents’ separation in their early years of life) in Scotland. Research has shown that children who do not live with both of their parents fare worse on a variety of outcomes such as their health and wellbeing, education and labour market attainment; and they often differ in terms of their own family lives in adulthood. However, less is known about the heterogeneity of their socio-economic context and the factors that can mitigate the negative effect of family dynamics. This study contributes to knowledge by focusing on maternal employment as a potential element of differentiation in levels of socio-emotional well-being of children living with a lone mother. 

The key research questions are:
•    Is maternal employment beneficial to the child socio-emotional wellbeing?
•    Does the relationship between maternal employment and child wellbeing vary – in sign and and/or strength – depending on the mother’s: a) number of hours worked; or b) occupational status?
•    To what extent is the relationship between maternal employment and children’s wellbeing mediated by: a) household income; b) maternal psychological wellbeing?
•    How does reliance on formal or informal childcare affect the relationship between maternal employment and child wellbeing?

Type of inequality
This paper looks at lone mothers and differences in the outcomes of their children by maternal employment.

The analysis draws on the Growing Up in Scotland data. Data from the two birth cohorts are combined and children are observed at the age of 10 months, 3 and 5 years. The outcome of interest is children socio-emotional well-being at age 5, measured with the SDQ questionnaire.
Logistic regression models are applied to estimate the probability of reporting severe socio-emotional problems by mother’s employment status. All analyses use Inverse Probability of Treatment Weights to account for selection of mothers in employment. Mediation Analysis is applied to estimate the role of household income, maternal psychological wellbeing and childcare arrangements.

Key findings
This study demonstrates that in Scotland, children of working lone mothers are less at risk of having severe socio-emotional problems. Part of the beneficial effect of maternal employment is explained by higher level of household income and greater psychological wellbeing of working lone mothers. Further, children of working mothers who attend formal childcare fare better than those who do not. However, not all types of employment are the same. Children whose mothers work mini-jobs do not do better than children of non-working mothers; and only among children whose mothers are employed fulltime, and in medium-high occupational positions is the prevalence of severe socio-emotional problems as low as that observed in stable two-parent families.

Policy implications
The findings will provide an important evidence base as to the implications of maternal employment in lone-parent families, thus guiding anti-poverty policy to support such families. It also provides insights into the extent to which preschool provision helps to reduce inequalities by family structure.

For more information about this research, please contact Dr Francesca Fiori.

Research Team

Dr Francesca Fiori
Senior Research Fellow