Working Mothers Shouldn't Feel a Twinge of Guilt

If you're a working mother who ever feels a twinge of guilt about missing time with your kids, you shouldn't. You actually may be making them more successful — especially your daughter.

New research by a Harvard Business School professor showed adult daughters of working mothers earned 23% more than those whose mothers did not work during their childhoods — seeing average income of $35,474 compared to $28,894. On top of that, 33% held supervisory positions, compared to about 25% who saw their mothers at home during childhood.

Men who had working mothers and those who had stay at home mothers had similar incomes and likelihoods to hold supervisory positions, but those raised by working mothers spend nearly twice as much time on family and child care.

"There is no single policy or practice that can eliminate gender gaps at work and at home," said Kathleen McGinn, the Harvard Business School professor who authored the working mother study along with her colleagues. "But being raised by a working mother appears to come very close to that. Women raised by a working mother do better in the workplace, and men raised by a working mother contribute more at home."

While the findings may surprise some, Catherine Pearlman, an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University, said it shouldn't come as a shock.

"Girls who grow up seeing their mother's work have built-in role models," Pearlman said. "They grow up thinking that a career is viable even if one is a mother."

She said even if the working mother doesn't have a high level job it isn't surprising that girls who grow up with a working mom are more likely to have a higher paying job and more responsibility.

"When a girl has a mother who works, they grow up assuming they too can work," she said. "They can reach for the stars because it's possible. Whereas when a girl grows up with a stay-at-home mother she may or may not know what's possible."

John Mayer, a clinical psychologist in Chicago and at Doctor On Demand, said there are specific, identifiable reasons why this phenomenon exists.

"The overriding dynamic at play here is modeling," Mayer said. "I stress the power of modeling by parents and, in fact, by all adults in the child's environment to parents … As young girls see their mothers accomplish this balance in their life they are picking up the coping skills to copy how to do this as a woman."

He said these skills are then handed down — almost by a process of osmosis — as the child absorbs the coping mechanisms, the actions and the feelings of the working mom by observation of how mom "walks through the world."

Mayer adds two other critical psychological conditions that cause these daughters to be successful are empowerment and mastery.

"The fact that their mothers had careers empowers young women that they can also 'do it,'" he said. "Further, experiencing their mothers navigating a work life outside the home builds a sense of mastery in young women-it instills inside their young brains that it is possible to have a career as a woman."

Pearlman said when mothers work, gender role stereotypes are challenged.

"If a woman can work then maybe a man can stay home," Pearlman said. "When both parents work children also may see a more egalitarian split of household chores. It might fall more on a dad to cook or food shop or pick up a child from school because he has more flexible hours or a job closer to home. These shifts in gender roles clearly have a lasting impact on both boys and girls."

The study builds on previous research showing many positive effects for children when mothers work, she concludes.

"This information is helpful to allay guilt some working mothers feel about being home less or having to shift responsibility," she said. "The body of research shows that children of working mother are either no different or fair better than kids who grow up with stay-at-home mothers."

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Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 8.