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?