Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Working Moms Are Happiest: Now What?

A new study from the American Psychological Association published in the Journal of Family Psychology finds that working moms report better overall health and less depression than their stay-at-home counterparts. 

The study surveyed over 1300 moms over 10 years. 

It also found that part-time working moms spend as much time involved with their children's school as stay-at-home moms (though full-time working moms spend less time). In addition, part-time mothers were found to be "more sensitive with their preschool children and provided more learning opportunities for toddlers than stay-at-home moms and mothers with full-time jobs."

As a working mom, a study like this works to affirm my own beliefs. I know that I am a healthier, more fully functioning human being because of my work. My work keeps me engaged and fulfilled. I like contributing to my household income, and the intellectual and financial fulfillment I get from the position makes me more confident and willing to try new things, which in turn helps my marriage, my attitude, and my friendships. I love working, and I can't imagine not doing it. 

However, I do feel that anytime a study like this comes out, it throws fuel on the working mom/stay-at-home-mom debate in a way that can be counterproductive for all moms. To be clear, I'm not saying that I blame the study itself. I think that studies like this are important to contributing to our overall knowledge about the societal impacts of parenting and they can definitely help impact policy changes (for instance, the results of this study are already being cited as reasons that part-time work should become more available with better benefits). 

At the same time, it's easy to take a headline like "Working Moms are Happiest" and use it to promote our own stance without thinking about the impact it has on people who don't want to (or can't) make the same decisions. 

I've tried to get to the full-text article, but it's not available on the databases I have yet, so I'll check it out later. In the meantime, here are some questions and concerns I think we need to keep in mind when approaching a discussion on results like these. 

  • As I've written about before, happiness is a very strange meter to use to gauge success because it is so subjective. Happiness often has to do with an in-the-moment response and might be a complicated longterm barometer, especially when you consider individual's purposes for decision-making and the complication of memory. What does it mean to be the happiest mom? 
  • Studies are good at showing trends, but they can't and shouldn't be used to analyze individual decisions. While some (and maybe even many) working moms are happier than some (and maybe even many) stay-at-home moms, that doesn't mean that individual working moms aren't miserable and individual stay-at-home moms aren't completely fulfilled. How do you think that individual moms reading these studies respond?
  • I'm really interested to see how this study measured "sensitivity" and "learning opportunities" for preschoolers. Hopefully I can revisit it after I see the full text. 
  • I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but why are all the studies about moms? Dads have kids, too. Dads work, too. And what happens if you stop delineating by traditional gender roles and look at trends in parenting?
So, I find this study interesting (especially since it seems to support my own lifestyle decisions, and who doesn't love studies that do that?), but I feel the need to back up and make sure I'm not just seeking out headlines that I like. Finally, I caution against the rhetoric that uses studies like these to further the working mom/stay-at-home mom dichotomy because dividing moms into warring factions is the easiest way to keep us from recognizing our commonalities and joining together to make a difference in key areas. 


  1. Good post Michelle! Interesting topic and I completely agree about the measurement of "happiness" being a very tricky one. I often find that people think of themselves as happy when they feel productive or like they are reaching their goals. I personally think cultivating joy in your life is a better barometer of mental/emotional capacity than "seeking" or "finding" happiness. But then again, it's largely semantics :)

  2. I would be really interested to know what the results would be if the options were "mums that have childcare 2 days a week and can either work or not work" because that's what makes the difference to me. Because I'm working as a contract marker I only get assignments twice a semester but I have childcare every week. It saves my sanity. If only all women could have access to part time (free) childcare then maybe the results would be different?

  3. Thanks, Emma. It's largely semantics, but that might be the most interesting part about it. At different times I've used happy to mean everything from "amused" to "joyous" to "fulfilled." And those are really pretty different states of being. Maybe we make "happy" do too much.

    Kat, great point. I would imagine that a lot of what makes a working mom "happier" or "healthier" has to do with getting a break from one mode of thinking/being all the time, and that might be something that some stay-at-home moms don't normally get.

  4. I don't have kids, so I really have no experience in this topic. But here's what strikes me about it:

    1. 1300 women is not a lot of women to base such a subjective study on. I mean, how many women are on the planet, you know? And, what, did these women wear mood rings? get strapped into a happiness meter? a lie-detector? hypnosis? I mean, what did they use to verify happiness?

    2. You make a good point - where are the Dad studies? Why is everyone so intent on studying moms? Kids have TWO biological parents - they wouldn't exist if they didn't. So, why is it always moms being judged about child-rearing?

  5. "Studies are good at showing trends, but they can't and shouldn't be used to analyze individual decisions. While some (and maybe even many) working moms are happier than some (and maybe even many) stay-at-home moms, that doesn't mean that individual working moms aren't miserable and individual stay-at-home moms aren't completely fulfilled. "
    I agree with your second sentence, but not your first. If one is personally unsure about whether working is the right choice, then it is rational to use evidence from such studies to guide one's decision. Additionally, if you are a stay-at-home mom and unhappy, the study suggests that you should consider whether working may make you happier, which may or may not be the case depending on individual circumstances. As a social scientist, I am a bit irritated when people dismiss a study's findings just because everyone is different. People are different, but one can still draw useful lessons from common trends.

  6. Ioana, you're right. And I have used studies to analyze my own choices many times, so I'm glad you pointed it out.

    Maybe what I should say is they shouldn't be used to jump to conclusions about other people's individual decisions. But you're absolutely right that they can be useful on an individual level as well, and I shouldn't have been so dismissive.