The Motherhood Penalty at Midlife: Long-Term Effects of Children on Women's Careers


  • Joan R. Kahn,

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Maryland
    • Correspondence to:Department of Sociology and Maryland Population Research Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742 (

    Search for more papers by this author
  • Javier García-Manglano,

    1. University of Oxford
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Nuffield College and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, New Road, Oxford, OX1 1NF, United Kingdom.

  • Suzanne M. Bianchi

    1. University of California, Los Angeles
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Department of Sociology, Box 951551, 264 Haines Hall, 375 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095–1551.


The authors build on prior research on the motherhood wage penalty to examine whether the career penalties faced by mothers change over the life course. They broaden the focus beyond wages to also consider labor force participation and occupational status and use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Young Women to model the changing impact of motherhood as women age from their 20s to their 50s (n = 4,730). They found that motherhood is “costly” to women's careers, but the effects on all 3 labor force outcomes attenuate at older ages. Children reduce women's labor force participation, but this effect is strongest when women are younger and is eliminated by the 40s and 50s. Mothers also seem able to regain ground in terms of occupational status. The wage penalty for having children varies by parity, persisting across the life course only for women who have 3 or more children.