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The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work (WSFW)

This project originally began in 1990 as the Wisconsin Maternity Leave and Health (WMLH) Project. The design is longitudinal and families have been followed since then. As the research and the families progressed, the project was renamed the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work.

Phase I: The Wisconsin Maternity Leave and Health (WMLH) Project

The original project was conceived to focus on issues of maternity leave and the health (mental, physical, and social) of women and their families from pregnancy through 12 months postpartum. The project was extended to include an additional assessment at 2 years after the birth. Therefore, the first five waves of data collection were: Time 1 (T1), 5 th month of pregnancy; T2, 1 month postpartum; T3, 4 months postpartum; T4, 12 months postpartum; and T5, 2 years postpartum.

A total of 570 pregnant women and 550 of their husbands/partners were recruited for participation in the WMLH Project. Approximately 78% of the sample was recruited from the Milwaukee SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area), and the remaining 22% was recruited from the Madison, WI, SMSA. Participants were recruited through two independent obstetrics clinics, two clinics of a large HMO, two university hospital clinics, and two hospital clinics serving low-income populations. Of the women who were eligible to participate, 75% did so.

The average age of the mothers at the beginning of the study was 29 years (range 20 to 43); 95% of the mothers were married to the father. In regard to ethnic heritage, 93% of the mothers were White (not of Hispanic origin); 2.6% were African American (not of Hispanic origin); 1.8% were Hispanic; 1.9% were Native American; and 0.7% were Asian American. For additional details on the sample, see Hyde, Klein, Essex, and Clark (1995).

The women held a wide variety of occupations at the time of recruitment. For example, the occupations of the women with the first 6 ID numbers were: child care provider, court reporter, manager in training, first-grade teacher, billing clerk in a credit department, and executive secretary. Occupational prestige was coded using the Bose Scale (Bose, 1985); it was developed to provide improved status ratings of female-dominated occupations, which had been neglected in traditional measures of occupational prestige. Scores can range from 10 to 100; examples of codes are 100 for physician, 65 for registered nurse, 50 for general office supervisor, and 16 for private household cleaner. For this sample, women’s average occupational status was 52.15 (SD = 16.7), which is close to the national average of 50.3 based on the census of occupations.

A wide variety of measures were obtained through face-to-face interviews, phone interviews, and written questionnaires. The measures fall into three basic categories:

  1. Mental health – for example, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety
  2. Physical health – ratings of health and symptoms, hospital records of delivery
  3. Social health – relationship with husband or partner (partner rewards and concerns), relationship with child (e.g., parenting stress, videotapes of mother-child interactions)

Phase II: The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work (WSFW)

Phase II of the project began in 1994, when families were past the time of maternity leave, and the project was renamed the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work. The project continued to study how parents balance work and family, but an additional focus was added, emphasizing issues of children’s socio-emotional development through preschool and the transition to school.

During Phase II, four assessments were conducted: T6, child age 3.5 years; T7, child age 4.5 years; T8, kindergarten; and T9, first grade. Again, a wide variety of measures were obtained, including a continuation of those from Phase I and a new focus on children’s emotions and behaviors, peer relations, and academic functioning. In addition to interviews with the parents, Phase II included interviews with childcare providers and teachers; videotaped observations of children’s temperament and relationships with other family members (i.e., mother and a sibling); the collection of children’s saliva to assess the stress hormone cortisol; and at first grade, puppet-based interviews with the children themselves.

Phase III: WSFW: The Elementary School Years

The project continued with assessments at 3rd grade (T10) and 5th grade (T11). Of the original 570 families, approximately 400 remained in the project and contributed data at these assessments. Measures of the family environment, children’s school experiences, and socio-emotional development continued to be obtained. In addition, an increased emphasis was put on children’s cognitive processes, including their self-esteem and attributions for events in their lives, and their friendships and activities. At fifth grade, saliva was also assayed for the hormones testosterone and estrogen as part of understanding children’s pubertal development.

Phase IV: The Adolescent Years

The project has continued with assessments in the developmentally important middle school and high school years. Assessments have been conducted at 7th, 9th, and 10th and 11th grades (T12, age 13; T13, age 15; T14, age 16; T15, age 17) and are underway for 12th grades (T16, age 18). Many of the same measures are continued from earlier phases, and new measures are included to assess life events, stressors, and other factors that have an impact on teen personality, mood, and behavior. Much of our current work is focused on trying to understand how early factors in children’s life, such as child temperament and family emotional climate, can help us better understand teens’ later mental health, school performance, and peer relations. Such questions make use of the extensive data provided by participating parents, children, and teachers during the last 18+ years.

Two additional projects are being conducted during the adolescent phase of the project: the Moms & Math Project, and a Study of Adolescent Brain Development.

Moms & Math Project: American children perform less well than children from other nations on standardized mathematics tests. Many explanations, as well as solutions, for this deficit have been offered. We focus on parents as a solution, and specifically on parents’ involvement with their children as they do math homework. The research, grounded in social learning theory and Vygotsky’s theory, investigates mothers’ interactions with their 5th grade and 7th grade children as they work mathematics problems together. We videotaped these interactions in participants’ homes and, later, coded the videotapes. Questionnaires were administered as well. We want to find out which natural teaching approaches are most effective, and whether these interactions change between 5th and 7th grade. A follow-up assessment to be conducted during high school is underway.

Study of Adolescent Brain Development: Although it’s common knowledge that the adolescent years are a time of major change and transition – socially, emotionally, and physically – there still is a great deal that we do not understand. One critical but largely unexplored area of research is how children’s early experiences affect their later brain development and how that is related to healthy adjustment. Recent advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) make it possible to obtain very high resolution images of parts of the body, including the brain. Functional MRI (fMRI) enables repeated images to be taken very rapidly, allowing observation of changes in the brain that happen in response to activities done during a scan. For example, fMRI can help us see how different individuals respond to performing mental exercises or viewing a series of images (like faces displaying a range of emotional expressions) by indicating which areas of the brain are activated during these tasks. Beginning in the summer of 2005 and continuing into 2007, a group of families (over 80) volunteered to participate in a project that featured as its key component MRI scans of teens’ brains. Additional activities included semi-structured interviews with mothers and teens about teen mental health and a series of cognitive tasks such as vocabulary, pattern matching, and story recall. We have already begun analyzing the extensive data from this project. In addition, a second brain imaging study with a subset of WSFW teens is being conducted in 2009 and 2010.

For Further Information

For further information about any aspect of these projects, contact Jeff Armstrong, jmarmstrong2@wisc.edu

Availability of Data

We hope to have the first 5 waves of data ready for public availability to other researchers soon. For further information, contact Dr. Janet Hyde, jshyde@wisc.edu


Dr. Essex and Dr. Hyde are grateful for the following funding for these projects: NIMH (grants R01-MH044340, P50-MH052354, P50-MH069315, P50-MH084051, and R21-MH082705), NSF (grant REC0207109, DRI0814750), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Psychopathology and Development, the Sloan Foundation, and – at the University of Wisconsin – the HealthEmotions Research Institute, the Graduate School, and the School of Medicine and Public Health.

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