Depression and the Mommy Wars: Who’s Worst Off?

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Are working moms more prone to depression than those who stay at home? One faces long hours away from her family, a lot of juggling and exhaustion. The other faces long hours with needy little humans, a lot of isolation and exhaustion. A new study suggests that it’s less important whether a mother works outside of the home than the kind of job she has.

The study, released Friday by the Council of Contemporary Families, found that working moms who have good jobs had among the lowest levels of depressive symptoms of all the mothers studied. Even if the women’s stated preference was to stay home, those with good jobs reported the same level of unhappiness as those who chose not to be in the paid labor force. A satisfying job seems to be a good hedge against unhappiness.

Mothers who did not work outside the home were only unhappy if they wanted to work. They were equally miserable as the mothers in the opposite position: working in a crummy job and wishing they didn’t have to.

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Some of this, of course, would be linked to the financial strain that usually comes with low-quality or no work. Presumably, the moms who have what the study designates as good jobs are well-paid, which often takes the edge off other disappointments. I’m guessing though, that they’re also the moms who worry aloud a lot about whether they’re doing the right thing. Those who need the jobs to put food on the table don’t have the luxury of fretting.

The study, which was written by sociologists Margaret L. Usdansky at Syracuse University and Rachel A. Gordon at the University of Illinois at Chicago, using data from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), could help in understanding the problem of maternal depression, which is beginning to concern sociologists. Other research has found high levels of depression especially among moms with kids under age three. This is bad for kids and spouses as well as mothers, and tends to strain sometimes already fragile families.

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Such depression has often been attributed to whether mothers are with their families full-time or not, but this paper seems to suggest a more complicated matrix of reasons, especially since those who’d prefer to stay at home, but had good jobs, were not unhappy with their lot. Clearly, when it comes to motherhood, one size almost never fits all. And it’s hard to go wrong with choice plus opportunity.

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