Sisterhood Blog

Having Kids Makes Some Parents More Productive

By Elissa Strauss

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Hey working parents, I’ve got some good news for you. (Finally, I know.) Your kids might actually make you more productive.

According to a new paper with the unwieldy title of “Parenthood and Productivity of Highly Skilled Labor: Evidence from the Grove of Academe,” mothers of at least two children are, on average, more professionally productive than mothers of only one child, and mothers are generally more productive than childless women. Fathers of at least two children are also more productive than fathers of one child and childless men.

This of course goes against conventional wisdom on the topic, as well as how we many of us feel when we sit down at our desks after a sleepless night with a sick child. And yet, at least some of us are apparently doing better than we thought. The catch? You’ve got to play the long game.

The study found that parenthood is linked to lower productivity while children are 12 and younger, with mothers averaging a 17.4% loss, while fathers averaging a 5% loss. (Back to conventional wisdom.) But when the kids get a little older, ambitious working parents can catch up and even get ahead.

Another interesting finding in the study is that women who have their first child before the age of 30 are less productive, than those who have kids after 30. They didn’t provide an explanation for this, but I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that people further along in their careers no longer have to waste their energy on proving themselves, and therefore have more time to spend on the things that will best advance them.

The study looked exclusively at female academic economists. These are the women that “leaned in,” or stayed on the tenure-track, those who from the beginning believed they wanted a fast-paced career and a family. The authors suggest that because of these women’s obvious strong commitment to work, they were able to overcome the loss of productivity from having kids. They also point out that women are more likely than men to take non-ladder academic positions or leave entirely when they have kids, so the women in their study are clearly very driven.

Overall, the study’s authors aren’t out to pretend that everything is rosy for female academic economists, nor that these findings apply to all women or wage classes, but just that things might not be quite as bad as we think in this particular sector.

“Our study of the academic labor market arrives at a somewhat less dreary picture: We do not observe a family gap in research productivity among female academic economists. Moreover, motherhood-induced decreases in research productivity are less pronounced than usually purported.”

What I take away from this is that if you are a woman who has committed herself to a specific career path, one that provides you with a decent income and institutional support, and you achieve a bit of success before you have kids, then motherhood might not set you back in the long run. This is good news, but unfortunately applies to so few of us.


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