Family Matters

Why Working Mothers Are Happier and Healthier Than Stay-at-Home Moms

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Despite the juggling act required to hold down a job and care for children, moms who work report they’re healthier and happier than moms who stay at home when their kids are babies and preschoolers.

What’s more, women who worked part-time fared the best, trumping the stay-at-home crowd and, in some cases, full-timers, on measures of health and stress, according to a study that appears in December’s Journal of Family Psychology.

“Employment helps women and their families,” says lead author Cheryl Buehler, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G), who says the real message of her study is this: get a job, whether full-time or part-time.

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To date, much of the research on maternal employment has focused on how it affects children. Findings have been mixed and inconsistent: some conclude that the more a mother works, the better her children’s outcomes, perhaps because a mother who finds meaning outside her children is more satisfied in her role as a parent; others find the opposite. Many studies haven’t discerned a correlation.

Buehler decided to zero in on the mothers, delving into how work impacts moms’ well-being and their parenting in three areas: sensitivity toward their children, involvement in their kids’ schools and opportunities for learning that mothers provide for their kids (things like books, enrichment activities and jaunts to libraries and museums).

Buehler was particularly interested in looking at part-time work because it hasn’t been studied much. She concluded that it’s a distinct work status, albeit one that employers too often don’t take seriously enough. “The data shows that part-time employment helps family life,” says Buehler, who says that’s one reason why employers should encourage their part-time employees by offering pro-rated benefits, training and opportunities for advancement.

Buehler and colleagues looked at data collected by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, which interviewed 1,364 mothers beginning in 1991 when their babies were 6 months old. Over the course of 10 years, they checked back in with the moms seven times, culminating when their children were fifth-graders.

Buehler compared non-working moms to those who worked part-time (an extremely broad category defined as between 1 and 32 hours a week) or full-time (more than 32 hours a week). “In a lot of areas, there was no difference in emotional well-being” between full- and part-timers, says Buehler.

In general, part-time working moms reported less work-family conflict than full-time working moms, which aligns with previous research. Of course, it stands to reason that a mom who works one hour a week may be under far less pressure to balance work and family than one who works 32. But while full-time workers reported more work-family conflict, they were apparently able to cope well with the increased stress: they didn’t indicate more depression or worse health than part-timers. “It’s not translating into lower well-being,” says Buehler.

The most significant differences arose when comparing moms who weren’t employed 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. “Maybe that translates to the experience they bring to their children,” says Buehler.

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And it’s likely that because they’re not putting in a full work week, they actually have the time to escort their kids to the library and to museums. “Part-time employment is not such a time drain that moms don’t have time to do other things that are important to parenting, and it’s enriching their own lives in ways that enrich their mental health,” says Buehler.

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.

Overall, the study shows that mothers’ economic roles are pretty central to family life, which is reassuring because the stereotypical portrait of a working mom paints a harried, stressed-out caricature, with very little time or energy to do very much of anything. Earlier this year, a different study backed up the finding that working results in less depression for moms, but it was delivered alongside a caveat: to really guard against depression, ditch the concept of supermom.

The key is to accept that you can’t do it all and embrace the fact that you’ll have to make some compromises, advised University of Washington researcher Katrina Leupp, who presented her study in August at the American Sociological Association: “You can happily combine child-rearing and a career, if you’re willing to let some things slide.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.