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Are Working Mothers Happier and Healthier Than Stay-at-Home Mothers?


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Mrs. Green is rushing off to work. She brushes away a strand of hair from her baby’s eyes, kisses her pudgy cheeks goodbye, while giving the babysitter last minute instructions for the day, all while adjusting her sheital, fumbling for her keys, and answering a ringing cell phone. In another household, Mrs. Abrams is keeping her eye on lunch sizzling on the fryer while folding laundry and singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ to her giggling infant in the bouncer. Her toddler is whining that he’s bored and demands that she play Lego with him, so she lowers the heat on the stovetop, puts the laundry aside and uses her left leg to move the bouncer all the while.

The old debate over who has it ‘harder,’ stay–a- home mothers or working mothers, has never been clearly resolved. Some studies claim that stay-at-home mothers are more satisfied while working mothers are plagued with guilt, while other studies suggest the opposite. To date, much of the research on maternal employment has been inconsistent and focused on how it affects the children’s upbringing, rather than how it affects the woman. Some studies have shown that the more a mother works, the better off her children are, while other studies suggest the contrary. Finally, there are studies that haven’t even discerned a clear correlation. A recent report published in The American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology, claims that working mothers tend to be happier and even healthier than stay-at-home moms.

That study found that mothers who are employed part-time reported better overall health and fewer symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms, and that there were no reported differences in general health or depressive symptoms between moms who were employed part time and those who worked full time. Mothers employed part time were just as involved in their child’s school as stay-at-home moms, and more involved than moms who worked full time. In addition, mothers working part time appeared more sensitive with their pre-school children and provided more learning opportunities for toddlers than stay-at-home moms and moms working full time. Mothers who participated in the study were from 10 locations across the U.S. The number of mothers employed part time remained at about 25 percent of the total during the study, although some of the mothers moved into and out of part-time work.

Researchers then examined the data collected by a 10-year study by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, which tracked 1,364 mothers beginning in 1991 when their babies were 6 months old, and interviewing them seven times, and culminating when their children were fifth-graders. They compared stay-at-home moms to those who worked part-time or full-time (more than 32 hours a week) and concluded that in many areas, there was no difference in emotional well-being between the full- and part-timers. In general, part-time working moms reported less work-family conflict than full-time working moms, but the rates of depression and overall health levels were about the same for the two groups.

The most significant differences arose when comparing stay-at-home moms to those who worked part-time. The part-timers were less depressed, had better health, were more sensitive to their children and were better able to provide them with learning opportunities. That may be a function of employment, which improves people’s social skills and increases awareness of what’s going on in the community. For example, part-time moms said they were as active in their kids’ schools as moms who didn’t work and, not surprisingly, were able to devote more time than moms who worked full-time.

Tzivy Reiter, LCSW, and author of the soon to be released book, Briefcase & Baby Bottles: The Working Mother’s Guide to Nurturing Jewish Home, interviewed over 20 working mothers to gain insight into their daily lives. She believes that there is no one size fits all approach to the issue; whether or not a woman works is a very individual choice that is based on a myriad of personal variables. “A woman’s happiness with her choice will depend in large part on the support she is given by her family and community, as well as the strength of the connection she has with her family,” Reiter explains.

The financial-management website, Mint, published an estimate of how much a homemaker would earn if she were paid market prices for her work. The result was nearly $100,000 a year. Data like this vindicates stay-at-home moms who feel their work is undervalued. The salary was calculated by adding the daily cost of a chef, cleaning lady, babysitter, a personal driver, and a professional laundry service.

Shira Offer, a Professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University in Israel, authored a study where she reported that working women today feel overburdened by their multitasking and lack of spousal domestic support compared to stay-at-home mothers. While today’s generation of fathers is expected to be involved in housework and child care, Offer still finds that most women feel that it is their primary role. “We expect mothers to be good workers who are highly committed to their work, but they are also the ones held accountable for how their children do and how their households are run,” says Offer.

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