• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Mothers of Three and More Children Face Career Struggles

How mothers of many children (cannot) win in their careers


Well-educated women having three or more children often try to return to work after maternity leave but face penalties for motherhood and 'overqualification', as potential employers offer them lower paid, lower-ranking jobs and treat them as second-rate employees. Some mothers of many children choose to leave the labour market altogether. This has a disadvantage for the economy that loses skilled human resources but can have a positive extra-economic effect, because well-educated mothers tend to invest more in their children, facilitating their success in school and in life. A paper by Zlata Dorofeeva, Research Fellow of the HSE Institute for Social Policy's Centre for Longitudinal Studies, offers an insight into the career struggles faced by mothers of many children in Russia.

‘Second-rate’ Employees

'I really wanted to go back to work, but my job is not compatible with parenting', according to a 41-year-old mother of three living in Moscow. ‘There is no way to combine a workday of 8 to 10 hours with raising children'. She adds that employers and HR staff, once they learn that a woman is getting married, tend to give up on her as an employee: ‘Okay, we have lost her’.

Many companies generally do not favour mothers as employees and refuse to hire women returning to work after maternity leave. 'I was prepared to give 100% to my job, but the HR officer said that I would be a liability to the company by taking sick leave frequently', according to Anna K., a mother of three. 'So instead, I took a temporary job elsewhere'.

According to research, mothers of three or more — and even mothers of two — are often at a disadvantage in the labour market and many are forced to sacrifice their careers, welfare guarantees and decent wages by taking up precarious employment.

Opting for a job below one's qualification is common for women with children. 'They offered me a lower-paying position, because allegedly I would not perform well enough with three preschool children at home', according to Elena Sh. 'Nobody cared about my two university degrees'. Eventually, she abandoned the idea of getting a job and went self-employed, providing psychological counselling online.

Mothers of children aged 18 and younger are often forced to pay a 'motherhood penalty', earning less than their childless peers and being denied prestigious positions. Natalya K. recalls, 'My boss said that having a 'kindergarten' at home made me unfit to be a department manager, and appointed a single 30-year-old woman to the job'. 

This policy is usually based on the assumptions that women can lose their professional skills while on maternity leave or that having children makes them unreliable as employees. 'You won't be able to work overtime on our new project, because you will need to rush home right after work', Natalya K. recalls her boss' words, 'And you will refuse to travel on business. You simply won’t be there for the team'.

Some female employees with children choose less demanding jobs. 'I need a flexible schedule, because I take my children to classes and clubs. So my current job is a low-paid one. We live on my husband's income', explains Anna K.

Many working mothers abandon their career ambitions altogether. 'I don’t even think about promotion', Natalya K. admits, 'and only work for pay. I plan to change jobs once my children grow up a bit'.

But getting a job elsewhere may be a challenge: giving birth to a third child often means that the mother has now lost her chances of employment.

Those Who Never Come Back

Having a third child is a critical point for most families' financial situation. According to one study, mothers of three or more children are four times as likely to be unemployed as mothers of one or two children. 'I should certainly wave good-bye to a formal career, but at least I can work online', according to Elena Sh.

This is a significant loss to the labour market in terms of potentially valuable human resources. According to a 44-year-old respondent from Moscow, mothers with many children are 'very active women who have found their true calling in raising a family'. Otherwise, they would have given it all to their career which would probably leave them childless, the respondent reflects.

Mothers of three and more children tend to remain out of employment for long stretches of time when spaces between the births are relatively short and maternity leaves follow one another without a break. According to Anna K., 'my older children were born one after the other, and I only came back to work for four months between maternity leave'.

Dorofeeva's qualitative study examines the work trajectories of a high-resource group of mothers with many children which includes women with at least vocational training, average or above average income for their region, and a relatively high professional status, such as specialist or civil servant.

The respondents were aged between 32 and 49, most with university degrees, and all with three or more children. Other selection criteria included a registered marriage, a two-parent family, and all children being biologically related to both parents.

The interviews took place in Moscow and Voronezh, two Russian cities with contrasting living standards. In 2018, according to regional ranking based on Rosstat's sample-based Household Income and Expenditure Survey, large families in Moscow had the highest per capita incomes, while large families in the Voronezh region ranked 77th by per capita income. However, self-reported levels of economic wellbeing were similar in both cities in Dorofeeva's study.

The interviews reveal poor employment status of high-resource mothers with three and more children: some were forced to give up on employment altogether, while some others opted for non-standard employment, such as part-time or informal jobs, self-employment, etc. Many respondents worked in positions below their qualification.

Reference Points

Most respondents, immediately after graduation, took up employment which was by all measures standard, i. e. full-time jobs under an open-ended employment contract. Usually, they described this period in their working life as the most active and rewarding, although the work was often challenging. According to a 35-year-old Muscovite with four children, 'My work was hard, but it was not a struggle'. During that time, most respondents reached a fairly high standard of living.

But their family's financial situation changed with the birth of children. 'I used to make $ 3,000 a month and things were great', says a 44-year-old mother of three from Moscow. 'I had planned to go back to work soon after the birth of my first child but was able to do so only ten months later'.

Most families in Russia are one- or two-child, two-income ones. This pattern dates back to the so-called working mother's contract, characteristic of Soviet times, when women were expected to work full-time, while the state promised to help them raise their children by providing kindergartens and schools. Yet in reality, things rarely worked as planned and many children just grew up by themselves. Today, many women are in 'dual employment' and work equally hard in their jobs and at home, raising children. But when a family relies on just one income, it is usually a financial struggle.

This or similar situations were described by the HSE respondents. 'Our expenses went up after the birth of our children', according to Anna K, 'but we were not able to earn as much as before. At some point, we almost collapsed into poverty'. 

Childbirth Timing

The interval between births, as well as the type of employer, appear to be decisive factors in women's ability to return to work. According to Dorofeeva, women employed with state-run companies have good chances of returning to the same position in the workplace, as long as their second child does not follow within the next three years. A 43-year-old mother of three from Voronezh confirms this, saying that her job with a public employer 'waited for her without any problem'.

The mother's age also makes a difference: a woman who has her first child early on is more likely to return to standard employment (see Graph 2). In contrast, delayed births often force mothers to leave the labour market (see Chart 1).

Graph 1. Work trajectories of the surveyed women (sorted by age of first childbirth)
Graph 2. Work trajectories of the surveyed women (shift following first childbirth)

After the birth of their second child, women tend to choose non-standard employment or leave the labour market for a long time (see Chart 3).

Graph 3. Work trajectories of the surveyed women (shift following second childbirth)

The trend becomes stronger with a third birth, when many women choose flexible employment or homemaking only (see Chart 4). 

Graph 4. Work trajectories of the surveyed women (shift following second childbirth)

'I don’t think I’ll ever return to a nine-to-five office job,' says 38-year-old Muscovite Elena Sh. She explains that her previous employment with its inconvenient schedule and location would make it impossible for her to raise her three children. 'I will probably work remotely from home'.

Self-actualisation vs. Motherhood?

'Why am I not going back to the office?' reflects Elena Sh. 'Because office work will inevitably conflict with my family responsibilities. Working in a job requires an investment of time and effort. But it's a big question whether a job really deserves this investment'. According to Natalya K., 'Once back to work after maternity leave, one has to choose between an interesting project which can eat up your weekends and spending quality time with your children. The choice is not usually in favour of big work commitments, because family is more important'.

Mothers often go back to work because they need the money, especially when the family struggles after the birth of another child. But since this study focuses on well-to-do families, going back to work is a choice rather than a matter of survival for most respondents. Earning even a small salary gives mothers some degree of financial independence. According to a 35-year-old mother of five from Voronezh, 'I earn a fraction of my husband's salary, but I can spend this money on training courses for myself or to buy my children things that they have long wanted'.

Many unemployed women would like to go back to work once their youngest child grows up, so that they may self-actualise in employment as well as motherhood. The study author notes that while women did not describe their current or future return to the workplace as forced or involuntary, a few admitted feeling a certain discomfort, because they had concerns about a potential loss of skills and qualifications. 'When I considered returning to work, I found out that my job of choice required ten years of experience. In addition to my current degree, I would be asked to take a qualifying exam. But I would not pass it for the positions I have in mind', complains one 44-year-old Muscovite with three children.

In addition to this, other family members may discourage a woman from going back to work, arguing that it would disrupt her bond with the children. According to a respondent, 'I am always there for my children, and they know it and share everything with me. I will miss this closeness if I go back to work'. She sums it up by quoting her husband's words, 'Your job will cost more than it brings in, because no one can replace you here'.

Child-Centrism and Intensive Parenting

Many respondents emphasized the importance of emotional connection with their children, both pre-schoolers and adolescents alike. Other mothers interviewed by IQ.HSE shared the same feelings. ‘I run a consulting service from home, and my children are always around', says Elena Sh. 'We are good friends and confidants. Had I worked in an office, I would only be able to spend a little time with them in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening'.

Many of the interviewed families are child-centric. Natalya K. considers her children’s schedules, interests and activities her utmost priority. It is common for the respondents to practice intensive mothering and to invest considerable time in taking their children to clubs and classes and helping with their homework. While most fathers have also adopted a modern approach to parenting by being actively involved with their children's care and education, they tend to work longer hours and go on business trips more often in order to support the family.

Family Managers

Even though fathers are available and involved, mothers often serve as 'family managers' and decide on the most important matters. 'I am always around and on top of things, whether it’s a doctor's appointment, going to the cinema or hanging out at a children's party', according to Elena Sh.

As mentioned before, most Russian families are two-income ones, which makes economic sense. Yet for many large families, the traditional patriarchal distribution of family roles may be more feasible, where only the father is employed, while the mother focuses on homemaking and child rearing.

According to a 38-year-old mother of four from Voronezh, 'Our arrangement for the coming year suits both me and my husband - and most importantly, it is good for the children: their meals are always ready and their homework gets done. Otherwise, it would have been complicated... Our grandmothers are really passive [in terms of helping out].'

Dorofeeva comments, 'In a large family, the mother fills so many roles that even if she can earn a competitive salary, her work outside of home may come at a significant cost to the household, economic as well as psychological, especially if she cannot rely on extended family to help out'.

Extended Family Support

Being supported by extended family, such as grandparents and other relatives, proves invaluable for parents with many children, and quite a few are benefitting from such support. 'Sometimes I am busy at work and need someone to babysit my younger daughter. Our grandmother is really helpful in this situation. And she is also happy to play with the young ones', according to a 33-year-old Muscovite with three children. But some grandmothers find it too much of a challenge to manage several grandchildren at once. Indeed, the extended family may or may not welcome the idea of many children in a household. 'The grandmother was shocked even when we had our first child, but when we mentioned a second one, she was strongly against it', according to a 41-year-old mother of three from Moscow.

'Our relatives live far away from us and cannot help out', says Anna K. 'And we cannot afford a nanny'. But the cost of a nanny is not the only issue. For many people, caring for their own children is a moral obligation. 'I would not in principle trust [a stranger] to care for my children', explains Elena Sh. 'What is the point of being a parent then?' 

Other large families can serve as valuable source of support. According to a 35-year-old Muscovite with three children, 'We are four families, and we help each other out a lot, mainly with babysitting. I know that I can always leave my children with someone for the day'. While this kind of assistance can be received on demand, it is usually short-term and does not allow a mother to take up a full-time job.

Employment below Qualifications

With the birth of a child, women tend to swich to jobs which are easier to combine with parenting. This is typical of low-resource women. 'By making career subordinate to parenting, they choose part-time jobs which are almost always precarious', according to research.

But it is not uncommon even for high-resource mothers of large families to choose precarious, i.e. temporary, low-paid and less prestigious employment. According to Elena Sh., 'With my two degrees, I once worked as a retail salesperson and then as a receptionist with a company offering English language courses'.

Some respondents took teaching positions at school or kindergarten, finding this employment both accessible and relatively flexible. 'I ended up working at a kindergarten almost by accident', explains a 49-year-old Muscovite with four children. 'All of my children have attended that kindergarten. The administration was looking for a replacement teacher. I resisted for a while but then agreed, because it was an emergency'. Another Muscovite, a 42-year-old mother of six trained as a landscape designer, eventually became employed as a child development specialist, because she had also trained as a teacher. 'Having so many children is an advantage for getting a teaching job, because you appear more trustworthy', she believes.

Investing in Children

While the mothers of many children may underuse their education and capabilities in the job market, they invest this resource in their offspring. From an economic perspective, working mothers face an over-education penalty. But considering education as a mechanism for socioeconomic and cultural reproduction and high-resource mothers as its key actors, 'the extra-economic effect of building human capital can be powerful', according to Dorofeeva,. 

School may or may not produce a similar effect, therefore maternal investment in children can hardly be overestimated. According to research, parental education tends to influence the children's academic success, values, attitudes and health.

Mothers interviewed by IQ.HSE explained how they were using every opportunity to share their knowledge with the children. 'I tell them about things that I know and never begrudge money for books', explains Elena Sh. 'We go on tours and travel whenever we can afford it. We spend time on educational websites learning things together'. 

The study participants tend to be demanding and careful in selecting school for their children, and many have seen good results: their children often win at school Olympiads and creative competitions and enrol in prestigious universities. According to the study author, almost every surveyed family with children in the fifth grade and older 'share stories about their young ones' academic, athletic and artistic achievements'.

There is also an awareness that child-rearing is not just about academic success; a 46-year-old mother from Voronezh finds it essential for parents to focus on 'raising their child to be a good person in the first place', because ethical values are just as important in life as success.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 27, 2021