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U.S. Mothers’ Long-Term Employment Patterns

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Previous research on maternal employment has disproportionately focused on the immediate postpartum period and typically modeled either cross-sectional employment status or time until a specific employment transition. We instead conceptualize maternal employment as a long-term pattern, extending the observation window and embedding employment statuses in temporal context. Using data from NLSY79 and sequence analysis, we document five common employment patterns of American mothers over the first 18 years of maternity. Three typical patterns revolve around a single employment status: full-time (36 %), part-time (13 %), or nonemployment (21 %); the other two patterns are characterized by 6 (15 %) or 11 (14 %) years of nonemployment, followed by a period of transition and then full-time employment. Analyses of the immediate postpartum period cannot distinguish between the nonemployment and reentry groups, which have different employment experiences and different prematernity characteristics. Next, we describe how mothers’ human capital, attitudes and cultural models, family experiences, and race/ethnicity are associated with the employment patterns they follow, elucidating that these characteristics may be associated not only with how much mothers work but also the patterning of their employment. Our results support studying maternal employment as a long-term pattern and employing research approaches that address the qualitative distinctness of these diverse patterns.

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  1. For an example of the use of sequence analysis to study women’s careers—the types of jobs individuals hold throughout their lives—rather than employment statuses, see Blair-Loy (1999). For an example of an alternative method for analyzing women’s long-term patterns of paid work hours, see Damaske and Frech (2016).

  2. Halpin (2010), in a primarily methodological article on optimal matching, used mothers’ employment in the first four years post-maternity as an example.

  3. Despite some differences, multivariable results are broadly similar when unweighted or weighted with custom weights for respondents appearing in all survey waves (see online appendix, Tables S1S6).

  4. We exclude gaps that have missing information on start or stop dates (2 % of gaps).

  5. When pre-1978 jobs continued in 1978, we know their start dates and use the available information, although we do not assume that we have the full set of jobs for pre-1978 months.

  6. Some dissimilarity measures allow sequences to be transformed with insertions and deletions of statuses as well as substitutions. However, insertions and deletions distort the timing of events within the sequence, so we do not allow them.

  7. Multinomial logit models assume the independence of irrelevant alternatives. The average changes in predicted probabilities are similar when sequential logit models are used instead (see the online appendix text and Tables S9S12).

  8. For mothers with first births in 1995 and 1997, we show spousal characteristics reported in 1994 and 1996, respectively, which describe spousal traits two years prior to birth, because of the biennial format of NLSY79 since 1994.

  9. Among respondents in our “white” category, 19 % report at least one nonwhite ethnicity, 7 % identify a nonwhite ethnicity as their first ethnicity, and 13 % have missing or unspecified first ethnicity.

  10. Figure S5 in the online appendix compares the employment statuses between ages 20 and 40 of women in the Extended Sample to women who remain childless until age 40.

  11. We capture a 6 % larger sample by requiring that the respondent is followed only 14 years post-maternity (see the online appendix text, Table S17, and Fig. S6). When we use this sample and assign right-censored months missing employment status, the medoids are identical, and sequence assignment to clusters is nearly identical to the main results. When we use this sample and analyze only the first 14 years of maternal employment, medoids and sequence assignment change as expected given the shorter observation window: the transitions out of nonemployment occur earlier in the medoids of the Early Return and Late Return clusters compared with the main results, and most changes in cluster membership are to the cluster with the next-earliest reentry (i.e. Full-Time to Early Return, Early Return to Late Return, and Late Return to Nonemployed).

  12. We tested for an interaction between maternal education and maternal employment but found that the interaction terms in the multinomial logit model were not jointly statistically significant.

  13. In models that allow marriage to have different associations by race/ethnicity, we find that marriage is associated with reduced odds of membership in the Nonemployed group for African American mothers, heightened odds of membership in the Part-Time group for Hispanic mothers, and diminished odds of membership in the Full-Time group and heightened odds of membership in the Early Return group for white mothers. In models that allow marriage to have different associations for mothers with at most a high school diploma versus those with more education, we find that marriage is associated with reduced odds of membership in the Nonemployed cluster for less-educated mothers. For more-educated mothers, marriage is associated with diminished odds of membership in the Full-Time cluster (see the online appendix, Tables S18S19).

  14. We experiment with an alternative definition of spousal overwork, measured as 60 or more hours per week. In this specification, having a spouse who overworks is associated increased odds of membership in the Nonemployed cluster.

  15. Neither the interaction between spouse earnings and mothers’ own education nor the interaction between own prematernity wage and spousal earnings is statistically significant.


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This research was funded in part by an Early Career Research Award from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and an early version of this manuscript was published as Upjohn Institute Working Paper 15-247 ( We are grateful to Siwei Cheng, Margaret Gough, Ian Lundberg, and Demography reviewers and editors for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. The NLSY79 survey is sponsored and directed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the Center for Human Resource Research at The Ohio State University. Interviews are conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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Correspondence to Alexandra Killewald.

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Killewald, A., Zhuo, X. U.S. Mothers’ Long-Term Employment Patterns. Demography 56, 285–320 (2019).

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