Are working mothers happier?

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The cornerstone of feminism and gender equity at large is the issue of choice. Starting in 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Enovid for sale with a doctor's prescription, introducing the first birth control pill onto the market. Soon after, in 1964, the Civil Rights Acts prohibited employment discrimination based on sex, establishing legal precedence for women to pursue their desired careers without the threat of discrimination. But in the decades since, the choices afforded to women regarding family planning and vocational goals haven't uniformly fostered a sisterhood of support.

Childbearing and the accompanying postpartum decision-making has become a divisive, rather than a unifying, cultural debate for many women. In particular, to work or not to work has evolved into the boilerplate guilt-inducing, tension-provoking division among mothers, continually rehashed and reexamined on playgrounds and in PTA meetings, academic circles and Congressional hearings. A late 1980s article in Child magazine even coined a shorthand -- and arguably infantilizing -- term for the merry-go-round mothering debate: "The Mommy Wars" [source: Olen].


Regardless, American society is relatively amenable to mothers reentering the workplace. A 2009 survey from the Pew Research Center outlines how approval of working moms has ticked up since the battle lines of "The Mommy Wars" were drawn. Only 19 percent of adults surveyed thought that married women should rule the roost while the husband serves as breadwinner, compared to 30 percent in 1987 [source: Parker]. Between 1988 and 2002, the proportion of adults who agreed that both spouses should contribute to the household coffers also rose from 48 to 57 percent [source: Parker].

Yet, as any mother may attest, the tug of war between staying at home or heading back to the office isn't so much about approval ratings as it is about the daily experience that each entails. At-home moms argue that their dedicated housework and childrearing qualifies as full-time employment, while working mothers battle accusations of delinquency in their kids' lives. At the end of the day, once the little ones are tucked in, does either side emerge victorious?


Putting in Overtime at Home

Working mothers often have to cover a "second shift" at home.
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Just as the number of women working outside the home has climbed steadily upward since 1880, moms earning money isn't a modern innovation, either [source: Stern]. Even in 1960, during the days of "Father Knows Best" when at-home mothers were the cultural standard in the United States, 27.6 percent of married moms with children under 18 years old held down jobs [source: Alger and Crowley]. As of 2010, more than 70 percent of U.S. mothers with school-aged children brought home a paycheck [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]. Though not surprisingly, the proportion of working mothers (roughly 75 percent) is highest among unmarried women who double as the heads of household [source: Joint Economic Committee Majority Staff].

Among married couples, however, the division of chores and childcare hasn't evolved toward gender equity alongside developments the workplace. In fact, social scientists report that the ratio of male-to-female housework has stagnated in the past century, since long before women were common fixtures in cubicle farms [source: Belkin]. According to the University of Wisconsin's National Survey of Families and Households from 2008, full-time working mothers put in an average 28 hours of housework each week, compared with 16 hours per week for working husbands [source: Belkin]. In the late 1980s, University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild termed these post-9-to-5 duties married women perform as the "second shift," emphasizing how, for many employed moms, the work day doesn't end once they tuck laptops away in their briefcases [source: Ruttner].


At-home moms might take umbrage at the suggestion that their domestic responsibilities are any less time-consuming -- and not without merit. When mothers elect to stay at home with dads bringing home the bacon, women devote 15 hours per week to childcare, whereas the working dads only clock two hours. Household management additionally eats up 38 hours per week, coming awfully close to the standard 40-hour work week [source: Belkin]. Moreover, the extra time afforded by not holding a job is theoretically funneled toward children for their well being. At-home mothers can, in theory, assist with organizing school fundraisers, courier kids among a host of extracurricular activities and help with homework instead of answering evening work e-mails.

But in spite of their kid-friendlier schedules, full-time at-home moms aren't the happiest among all women with children.


The Kids Are Alright

Part-time work offers the optimal mothering-life balance.
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One way the inherent pressure involved with employed motherhood manifests is in the amount of stress encountered on a given day. For instance, a 2005 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of working moms always feel "rushed" throughout their daily routines [source: Pew Research Center]. Twenty-five percent of at-home mothers and working dads, on the other hand, felt perpetually rushed, although both working and non-working mothers exhibited higher rates of stress than men in the survey [source: Pew Research Center].

Despite these clues that working mothers grapple with more stress, psychological research has found that they are subjectively happier than unemployed mothers. According to a study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, mothers with part-time jobs enjoyed better health and lower stress levels that their full-time and unemployed counterparts [source: Rochman]. The research, published in December 2011 in the Journal of Family Psychology, also indicated that part-time working moms exhibit greater sensitivity toward their children, participate in more school functions and foster more extracurricular learning [source: Rochman]. A January 2012 study from Rutgers University also determined that flexible work options, such as teleworking, correlate to a more fulfilling work-life balance for mothers [source: Alger and Crowley]. In that way, engagement and autonomy outside the home can allow part-time working mothers to stay more fully engaged inside the home, without the added demands of a 9-to-5 schedule.


On the down side, there's also a part-time penalty that many working mothers encounter. Although workplace studies have found that mothers in particular accomplished 22 percent more in 10 percent less time compared to their peers, they bear the brunt of lower part-time status [source: Pynchon]. In addition to not accruing health benefits and paid time-off, part-time work earns up to 60 percent less than full-time for identical jobs [source: Joint Economic Committee Majority Staff]. Perhaps the mental health boon is enough of a bonus for mothers, however, considering that 60 percent identify part-time work as the optimal employment scenario [source: Pew Research Center].

And what about the kids? Working mothers feeling anxiety over whether their paychecks are bankrupting their children's development can rest easy. A 2010 meta-analysis of child development literature published by the American Psychological Association found no adverse effects of maternal employment over the long term [source: Lucas-Thompson, Goldber and Prause]. Individual studies have indicated minor achievement gaps in early childhood, all of which were nonexistent by age 3 [source: Luscombe]. In which case, it's high time for the "Mommy Wars" to declare a ceasefire.


Author's Note: Are working mothers happier?

Women today can have it all. They can pursue educational and career opportunities unhindered by gender, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and advances in birth control mean they can better decide the optimal time for starting a family. But while we have the intellectual, legal and medical tools pursue careers and have kids, having it all can be an energy-sapping juggling act. Even in 2012, working mothers tend to take care of more housework than their male partners, regardless of employment status. And they typically bear the brunt of childcare as well.

So for this working woman who wants to start a family someday, I sometimes wonder whether "having it all" is worth the extensive hours and energy required. Could staying at home with the kids suffice, or do those briefcase- and backpack-toting professional mothers have the happier lot?


Related Articles


  • Alger, Vanessa M. and Crowley, Jocelyn Elise. "Aspects of Workplace Flexibility and Mothers' Satisfaction with Their Husbands' Contributions to Household Labor." Sociological Inquiry. February 2012. (March 08, 2012)
  • Belkin, Lisa. "When Mom and Dad Share It All." The New York Times Magazine. June 15, 2008. (March 08, 2012)
  • Gardner, Ralph Jr. "Mom Vs. Mom." New York. (March 08, 2012)
  • Joint Economic Committee. "Working Mothers in the Great Recession." U.S. Congress. May 2010. (March 08, 2012)
  • Kuchinskas, Susan. "The Mom Achiever." AdWeek. Feb. 27, 2012. (March 08, 2012)
  • Kuttner, Robert. "She Minds the Child, He Minds the Dog." The New York Times. June 25, 1989. (March 08, 2012)
  • Lucas-Thompson, Rachel G.; Goldber, Wendy A.; and Prause, JoAnn. "Maternal work early in the lives of children and its distal associations with achievement and behavior problems: a meta-analysis." Psychological Bulletin. 2010. (March 08, 2012)
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