Ambitious women, rejoice. If you can master time management, you may not have to choose between a powerhouse career and a happy family life. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently published a study disproving the conventional wisdom that mothers must be less professionally productive, by examining the publication frequency of 10,000 academic economists.
In fact, mothers may actually be the most productive members of the workforce, if we consider a three-decade horizon. Of course, mothers won’t be surprised to hear that conclusion. Competing demands from our children and careers—typically requiring the most attention during identical years—constantly force mothers to adapt and discover efficiencies. We make multitasking an art form and learn to squeeze work from snippets of time we might have previously wasted.
The Federal Reserve’s research is undoubtedly heartening for mothers of young children. As the mother of a three-year-old and a three-month-old, I am once again climbing a steep learning curve, as I learn the Two-Kid Juggle. Finding time to work while also meeting my daughters’ competing, and often conflicting, needs is a true test of my parenting skills.
Over the last three months, I have learned to breastfeed while serving my preschooler dinner and apply eyeliner while bouncing my baby, who regularly accompanies me to public events. I even nursed and bounced the baby while interviewing Federal Reserve Bank economist Christian Zimmermann for this article.
So while I’m managing to write, I’m not nearly as productive as I was when I had only one, predictable sleep schedule to work around and could type two-handed. Not surprisingly, the study found that women at my stage are less immediately productive. Specifically, the productivity of economist mothers with children at home is 15 to 17 percent lower than that of their childless peers.
During those years of most intense parenting, “a mother of three children has, on average, a research record reflecting a loss of four years of research output by the time all of her children have reached their teens. The respective output loss of a mother of two children amounts to about two and a half years.”
By examining research productivity, which the authors define as “the key determinant for academic advancement,” they found that “the productivity cycle of mothers of one child shows a marked decrease after the early career peak and a surprising recovery toward the end of the career. . . . Mothers of at least two children are, on average, more productive than mothers of only one child, and mothers in general are more productive than childless women.”
Interestingly, whenever I’ve asked parents with several children for advice about mastering the Two-Kid Juggle, the response is consistent: “Have a third.” It sounds counterintuitive, but according to the Fed’s study, it may not be.
For some adults, more is not necessarily too much. During our phone interview, co-author Christian Zimmermann agreed that parents with more children are likely a self-selecting group; they already excel at time management and can juggle plenty, so they willingly expand their families.
For those seeking a recipe for personal and professional success beyond that first step of mastering time management, the study’s authors found two clues. First, a woman should wait until age 30 to bear a child. Having a child for the first time between 30 and 34 doesn’t impede an economist’s productivity. However, the academic output of twenty-something first-time mothers apparently takes a noticeable hit. Zimmermann noted that they have no clear explanation for that difference, but that the twenties are a grueling period for academics, as they are still proving themselves professionally.
As someone who waited until her thirties to become a mother, I believe that advice rings true. While Nature may prefer twenty-something mothers, a woman who waits a few years can benefit from the added time to establish herself professionally, as well as the finely honed focus and perspective that accrue through additional life experience.
Second, women who hope to combine motherhood with a successful career should be married or in a committed relationship. The study’s authors inferred that women who reported no partner at birth and were unaware of childcare options had unplanned pregnancies, although they did not explicitly ask the question. Women in this group saw their productivity drop 13 to 17 percent, compared to their own childless baseline.
Among women who have graduated college, just 12 percent of first births take place outside marriage. It is reasonable to assume that this figure is even lower among women with advanced degrees. In the context of this study, Zimmermann said he didn’t recall the precise number of unmarried mothers involved, but that this group was “less than 2 percent, so less than 200 [women], which is a fairly good number” for a reliable sample.
Beyond these general lessons, Zimmermann cautions that the study’s findings are not necessarily applicable to other professional women. The population in the study, after all, works in a field that allows parents the freedom to build their schedules around family obligations.
The study does offer one final lesson for employers, though. Parenthood seems to perform a signaling function, flagging potential employees with good time management skills.
In the end, Zimmermann believes that women should be cheered by his study. “They shouldn’t go with the preconceived notion that you can’t do both [parenting and a career]. You just need to be skilled at organizing your time and know that there will be crunch times.”
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, DC.