Does Staying at Home Give Moms a Case of the Sads?

A study from the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology was released this week revealing that mothers who work outside of the home are “happier and healthier” than stay-at-home mothers. The study’s authors, Cheryl Buehler and Marion O’Brien from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, suggest that working mothers reported to be in better health and were less likely to report symptoms of depression than their stay-at-home counterparts, potentially because the latter group is more “socially isolated.”

Is she happier than you?

The timing of this report couldn’t have been more perfect for this newbie blogger. For the intents and purposes of Homestead Instead, a discussion about the health and well-being of working versus stay-at-home mothers couldn’t be more relevant… or juicy, for that matter. I’ve been mapping out my argument in my head for this all week.

I relentlessly pored over study after study about the benefits of being a stay-at-home mother and the positive effects it has on children. I bookmarked countless pages and copied and pasted excerpts that would support my “Nuh-uh! Stay-at-home moms are better and you can suck it” rebuttal that I would publish.

And then I deleted all of it.

You see, I have absolutely no desire to dip even a single toe into the Mommy Wars waters. I’ve been on both sides of this tall, divisive fence and can report rather objectively that the grass on each side is the exact same shade of greenish-brown. Neither landscape is perfect. Neither is better, neither is worse. Both are hard as hell and are deserving of the respect, sympathy, and camaraderie of those on the other side.

So here’s the crux of my juicy, relevant blog post on the subject: Let’s do better, get better, and be better. Let’s prove them wrong. I mean, if the alleged experts purport that being an unemployed stay-at-home mom is going to make you depressed and unhealthy, let’s do something about that.  If their suggestion that SAHMs are “socially isolated,” is correct, let’s all open our front doors wide and get ourselves and our kidlets out of the house. If this isn’t something you’re already doing, here are some tips to get started:

  • If you’re a breastfeeding mom, find a La Leche League meeting nearby and drop in to swap stories with some likeminded lactating ladies.
  • Search for a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group to join.
  • If fitness is your thing (or if you’re trying to make it become your thing) see if there’s a Stroller Strides meetup near you.
  • Other great places to meet other moms and their respective playdate companions include your local library, public park, city/county rec center, and even local coffee shops and bookstores as they often have singalong or storytime events during the week.

Still stuck in the house? Make the day something that’s fun for you and the kiddo(s) instead of something to be tolerated. There was a notable mood-lifting that happened for both me and my daughter when our days went from playing with the same boring toys over and over, to testing the waters with experiential and sensory play.  Oh, and Pinterest is an excellent place to search for more un-boring ideas for educational play for toddlers.

Personally, this study does not apply to me. Being a stay-at-home mom has been much better for my overall emotional and mental health. While I was financially more comfortable being a full-time working mother and had fewer life stresses in that regard, I was also riddled with anxiety – and a touch of depression – over being away from my daughter all day. I have found more happiness and health outside of the workplace than I did in it, so I suppose I’m an exception to what Buehler and O’Brien are suggesting is the norm. That being said, I can see how easy it is to become stuck in a rut, overwhelmed, feeling a loss of personal identity, or feeling less equal than your partner because you don’t generate income for the family. If any of these fit the bill for you, I would encourage you to talk to your partner, a trusted friend or family member, or seek support from a local parenting group like those I mentioned above.

The UNC Greensboro study isn’t the first to suggest that stay-at-home moms are more depressed than their working counterparts. In fact, it’s been reported that as many as 57% of stay-at-home moms report some symptoms of depression.  I’m a die-hard advocate for maternal health from all angles, including mental and emotional, so please take stock  of where you stand on the happiness spectrum and act accordingly. Motherhood ≠ Martyrdom, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that you should “suck it up” for the kids’ sake, especially since your health is almost as important to their well-being as it is to your own.

Finally, I would be doing a great disservice to my own efforts in reviewing and analyzing this study if I didn’t highlight a few key points that seemed to have gotten lost in the incendiary, Mommy War-declaration headlines that the media reduced its findings to (like this one and this one and this one):

  • The study did not account for the reason(s) behind the unemployed mothers’ status [e.g.: whether it was a conscious choice, a forced choice (perhaps due to unavailable/unaffordable daycare or familial/cultural pressure), or simply due to the unavailability of a job given the status of the economy (including whether or not the mother was terminated or laid off from a previous employer)]. Any of the aforementioned factors could certainly skew the reporting of depressive symptoms, but were not taken into consideration.
  • The mothers who participated in the study each only had one child; none were parents of multiple children.
  • “Working mother” was defined only by quantity of hours worked; it did not take into account professional status, shift work, or job flexibility, any of which could potentially alter the findings if the working mother groups had been isolated to these respective identifiers.
  • The relationship between the mothers’ well-being and their employment status virtually disappeared once the child entered grade school.
  • Couple functioning, or level of intimacy between the mothers and their significant others, was not affected by employment status.

Be well, all,



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