Public Health Parenting and Work
Caroline J. Gatrell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0063


Research on parenting and work developed from the 1970s onward in response to women’s increased participation in the labor market. This signified a change from the social model of heterosexual coupledom associated with the 1950s and 1960s, in which mothers were often expected to give up employment following childbirth. During the 1970s, research on how parents managed tensions between paid work and unpaid domestic and child-care labor was a core focus within two very different arenas: organizational psychology, and feminist studies. Within these fields, the methodological and political approaches were at variance. Organizational psychology research tended to be quantitative and was concerned with work rich, dual earner couples to relieve stress and improve parental and familial well-being. The emphasis was on measuring levels of stress and work/family conflict rather than on possible desire among parents to achieve social change, either to prioritize paid work (in the case of mothers) or to become more involved with child care (in the case of fathers). Feminist research during the 1980s was more likely to be qualitative and emphasized maternal entitlements to career opportunities Maternal well-being is still the focus of present day feminist studies on how employed mothers care for babies and infant children while in paid work. Despite methodological differences, however, both organizational psychology and feminist research shared (and continue to share) a common concern with the health and well-being of parents (with a feminist focus on mothers) who were attempting to establish their place as parents and workers within a new social order, with increased numbers of mothers combining parenting and paid work. During the 1990s, research on parenting and work flourished within sociologies of family practices. This field moved forward the debate on parenting and work by acknowledging the desire among both mothers and fathers to actively engage with children’s upbringing. In keeping with this new recognition of paternal desires’ to prioritize fatherhood as well as paid work, research on employed fathers has flourished. Recently, within the arena of social policy, research on parenting and work-life balance has begun to acknowledge the importance for organizational policies to recognize the needs of fathers as well as mothers. This is important in the context of women’s increased labor market participation; in the United States, for example, more than 50 percent of the workforce is female.

Organizational Psychology

During the late 1970s and to date, research on the effect of managing work and family on the health of parents has flourished within the field of organizational psychology. As more women maintain continuous employment following childbirth, this is recognized in organizational psychology literature. Organizational psychology literature continues to investigate the impact on parents’ health when both parents are “out” at work, yet at the same time caring for dependent children. The premise upon which much of this literature builds is the idea that conflict exists between work and family responsibilities. When mothers and fathers are pressured for time and concurrently attempting to be both good parents and good employees, psychological distress or “stress” is seen to increase, as discussed in Greenhaus, et al. 1989. The argument that heterosexual dual-earner parents are stressed due to conflicting roles and multiple commitments on their time is crystallized within a seminal work, Greenhaus and Beutell 1985. This work has been credited in Gareis, et al. 2009 and in Mesmer-Magnus Viswesvaran 2005 for forming the basis of organizational psychology research on parenting and work for the following 25 years Greenhaus and Beutell 1985 identifies causes of stress in relation to three conflicting demands: time-based conflict (in which there are insufficient hours in the day for parents to manage the requirements of parenting and paid work); strain-based conflict (in which employed parents with dependent children become so fatigued that they cease to function effectively either as parents or as employee); and behavior-based conflict (in which the roles of good parent and good employee conflict, causing stress among parents who are trying to do well at both). Since 2000, with the important exceptions of Gareis, et al. 2009 and Granday, et al. 2007, the organizational psychology field has found itself the subject of critical reflection, because, as Özbilgin, et al. 2010 and Lewis, et al. 2007 observe, much of the research in this arena is based on the assumption that fathers and mothers are parenting together and within heterosexual relationships, where fathers are main breadwinners and mothers second income earners. Özbilgin, et al. 2010 notes how much organizational psychology research fails to address the needs of minority groups, such as single parents, gay parents, and ethnic minority parents. Additionally, organizational psychology studies have focused on white collar and relatively affluent workers, meaning that the needs of less affluent employed parents are under-researched. Finally, Kossek, et al. 2011 expresses concerns that, although scholars of organizational psychology have campaigned for governments and employers to enhance work-life balance thorough family-friendly policies, only limited progress has been made in practice.

  • Gareis, K., R. C. Barnett, K. Ertel, and L. F. Berkman. 2009. Work-family enrichment and conflict: Additive effects, buffering, or balance? Journal of Marriage and Family 71:696–707.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00627.x

    The 2009 study of Gareis, et al. on work/family enrichment and conflict, acknowledges the seminal value of Greenhaus and Beutell’s 1985 work. Gareis‘s research extends beyond white collar dual-career couples and includes nonpartnered respondents and embraces high, median, and low income families with 88 percent of participants self-identifying as white and 12 percent as black, Asian, or multi-racial. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Gatrell, C., and C. L. Cooper. 2008. Work-life balance: Working for whom? European Journal of International Management 2.1: 71–86.

    DOI: 10.1504/EJIM.2008.016929

    Pressures to perform fatherhood and motherhood according to embodied and gendered norms causes stress among professionally employed parents. Mothers working long hours may be accused of poor maternal performance, yet mothers working part-time are seen as uncommitted and may be denied promotion. Conversely, fathers face pressure to work full-time and may be discouraged from flexible working, which is not seen as compatible with the paternal role. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Granday, A., B. Cordeiro, and J. Michale. 2007. Work-family supportiveness organizational perceptions: Important for the well-being of male blue-collar hourly workers? Journal of Vocational Behaviour 71:460–478.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2007.08.001

    Granday, et al. 2007 examine how far work-family supportiveness affects the well-being of male blue collar workers, with a similar ratio of white and minority ethnic workers. As in the case of Gareis et al. above, this paper is important as it is less typical within the organizational psychology field than studies which focus on more highly educated white-collar workers. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Greenhaus, J., and N. Beutell. 1985. Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review 10:76–88.

    This highly cited paper investigates the conflictual nature of the roles of parent and employee, and the resultant stress experienced by parents who are combining both. Greenhaus and Beutell’s three-factor framework identifies three types of stress among employed parents: time, strain/fatigue, and behavioral. It has influenced many studies to date and is regarded by Gareis, as seminal. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Greenhaus, J. H., S. Parasuraman, C. S. Granrose, S. Rabinowitz, and N. J. Beutell. 1989. Sources of work-family conflict among two-career couples. Journal of Vocational Behavior 34.2: 133–153.

    DOI: 10.1016/0001-8791(89)90010-9

    This study examines work/family pressures experienced by 238 parents in two-career couples. Drawing upon Greenhaus and Beutell 1985, this work positions the emergence of dual-earner couples as the most significant change in post-war US life-styles. Focusing on time- and strain-based conflict, the paper shows how role ambiguity causes stress among fathers, who feel pressured if they perceive that wives or partners are putting career before family. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kossek, E., B. B. Baltes, and A. Mathews. 2011. Innovative ideas on how work-family research can have more impact. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 4:1–7.

    Identifies an “implementation gap” between scholarly recommendations for work-life balance policies and the implementing of such policies in practice. Given the extent of organizational research on work-life balance, Kossek, et al. 2011 notes how the level of enhancement to the work-life balance of parents is disappointing. The limited impact of work-life balance research on parents’ experience is identified as a serious challenge within organizational psychology. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Lewis, S., R. Gambles, and R. Rapoport. 2007. The constraints of a work-life balance approach: An international perspective. International Journal of Human Resource Management 18.3: 360–374.

    DOI: 10.1080/09585190601165577

    The authors critique literature on parenting and work-life balance. They indicate empathy with employed mothers who undertake most child and household work; however, they underline the requirement for flexible working policies to recognize fathers’ needs. They observe how much work-life balance literature has an Anglo-American focus and call for a more global approach to studies on parenting and work. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Mesmer-Magnus, J., and C. Viswesvaran. 2005. Convergence between measures of work-to-family and family-to-work conflict: A meta-analytic examination. Journal of Vocational Behavior 67.2: 215–223.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2004.05.004

    Explores correlations between family-to-work and work-to-family conflict. Twenty years after Greenhaus and Beutell published their 1985 paper, Mesmer-Magnus et al. draw upon that work, to understand role strains and stresses experienced by employed parents. The paper shows how relationships between work and family are hard to disentangle and problematic to measure. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Özbilgin, M. T, T. A. Beauregard, A. Tatli, and M. P. Bell. 2010. Work-life, diversity and intersectionality: A critical review and research agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2010.00291.x

    This paper reviews work–life balance literature from 1980s to date drawing upon the concept of diversity. It observes how the experiences of single and/or impoverished parents have often been marginalized within research on employed parents. The authors observe the need for future research to prioritize the challenges facing parents in minority groups, especially those who may lack financial security and/or social support. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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