Mothers, Part-time work, and Happiness

From Bonnie Rochman:

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….

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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  • I “work” part-time, whenever I can (as a writer, blogger, and co-founder of a writer’s guild), and although I rarely receive much monetary compensation for doing so, being involved in a vocational pursuit that fits my gifts and that fulfills my sense of calling is so important to my mental health. I do feel that I have the best of many worlds; I am able to be a primary caregiver to my kids, and yet I’m able to contribute to the world around me in a way that God has intended and designed. For those women who are able to design their life to work in this manner, I highly recommend it! But I know from speaking to my working-mom friends that our society does not do a good job giving women these kinds of opportunities, unfortunately.

  • Tanya

    Helen Lee’s comment reminds us that neither men nor women -in this culture, have an appropriate work/life balance. And it is important to say that other industrial nations put life together differently. If “full time” meant 35-40 hours, with 4-6 weeks of vacation and other holidays — both men and women could feel like the primary caregivers for their children. We might all learn to live on smaller incomes — but with richer lives and more employment opportunities for all.

  • RobS

    I think there’s a benefit for a lot of women to just have some additional (& more advanced) challenges in the tasks they do. Many are competent & skilled enough to be managing deeper intellectual challenges. Maybe it’s being a student or teaching something, but also may be some kind of musical challenge as well as just a few hours in an office.

    There is a sense of value and praise that comes in the workplace and I think women seek to experience that as well. Often the “mom” job doesn’t come with a lot of kudos.

    Flexible work schedules and hours are prized, and employers that can help deliver those opportunities will be glad to get top part-time talent. Let’s hope the government keeps the working environment as friendly as possible to encourage this flexibility.

  • DLS

    “But I know from speaking to my working-mom friends that our society does not do a good job giving women these kinds of opportunities, unfortunately.

    – The opportunity to do something enjoyable but that doesn’t pay? Should society be ‘giving’ that?

  • DLS, my bad for not explaining properly: I mean that generally speaking, in the U.S. it is not easy for educated and experienced women to find part-time employment opportunities. Does that make more sense? As Tanya mentions above, a number of other countries do a better job at creating a structures and systems to allow women (and men) to manage the work-life balance more easily (i.e., maternity and paternity leave policies). (See this Huffington Post report on the 2011 Mothers’ Index Rankings and why the U.S. falls so far behind other inudstrialized nations in this regard.)

  • DLS

    Okay, yes, that’s a better clarification. I’m strongly against any effort by government to ‘encourage’ those things that that you suggest and think ‘The Mothers’ Index Rankings’ is silly for a number of reasons, but I do appreciate your clarification.

  • SkipR

    This study makes an association between healthier and happier moms and work outside the home. What are the correlations for healthier and happier kids? What are the correlations for kids who grow up to be sacrificial and loving adults? Sometimes (often?) sacrificing for others is not a “win-win” situation. (That’s what makes it a sacrifice!) While interesting, social science studies such as this one are hardly adequate for untangling the complex, long-term consequences of societal trends such as the massive increase in the number of mothers with small children in the labor force, especially since 1970.

  • Val

    I work part-time, in Canada (one year mat leaves, etc.) and realize how valuable time with kids is. I really do like the time I have with my children and have noticed that moms who don’t work spend a lot more time trying to escape from their kids than those of us who do. The “I’m with them all day” reasoning doesn’t cut it, because right now I am on one of those generous parental leaves (with my third) and I still don’t want to escape from them.

    I think it is because my job (teacher) is so challenging I enjoy the time with my kids, it is not because work is a break, but home becomes my break. It certainly doesn’t get me anywhere with my job (seniority based means I end up at the bottom of the pack), so it isn’t job fulfillment ( I like my job, but love my kids at home), perhaps it is interacting with adults – although I mostly interact with kids at work? I don’t really know. Some moms like being at home, but many seem stressed and feel undervalued, I don’t care who is looking (no one) the value I get from my time at home is the knowledge that the time I have with my kids is precious. I don’t know why two days a week at work makes such a difference in attitude, but I have noticed that it does.

  • JenG

    I work one day a week and l love being out of the house for a bit doing something different. I feel refreshed after and the extra money eases our financial situation – and mr baby hangs with her grandma who LOVES it. It’s a total win-win.

  • Kelly Cook

    Thank you for this insight! As a mom who has tried all three I find the balance of part time work to be stimulating and super worthwhile for me, yet I don’t feel that I am missing out on all of the growing moments with my kids. I am happy to work with other adults, bring in extra income, and for my sons to see a strong and independent mom who can work and be home. I appreciate both the statistics and that I can affirm it personally too! 🙂

  • zee

    I can’t really give my own personal experience about this, but I can say that my Aunt, who babysits her grandkids all day, seems almost giddy when she gets a phone call and it’s not about children.

    So, maybe it’s good to say, having a balance is important.

  • Or perhaps it’s because the part-time work translates to a modicum of extra money to spend on the child’s outside learning experiences. (?)

    I don’t know – it seems like a blanket statement/study to me. But then again, humility demands that I recognize that I likely think that way because it doesn’t agree with what I want it to say. 🙂

    I think the part that I disagree with the most has to be that the mother who works outside of the home being more sensitive to her child/ren. Really? It seems so opposed to anecdotal experience! Now, are there any studies that cast stay at home mothers in a positive light? It sounds like we all just drag around sick and depressed, treating our kids insensitively. Booooooo! 🙂 I’ve honestly never known a stay at home mother like this. If they were *that* depressed, they realized it and got a job.

    Maybe stay-at-home mothers simply are lonely, and so when they were asked to be a part of a study, they jumped at the chance and then vented. 🙂 Maybe it’s post-partum depression. 🙂

  • Just kidding on the last part….

    Seriously, though, when we are writing our wish lists for what society could give us –

    I’d wish for respect and value for the mother who is educated and talented; but who chose to pour her life into her children and her family. Maybe even respect for the woman who chose to continue to give up the extra money and kudos to adopt parentless children and/ or care for the elderly in her life as well.

    These choices are as valuable of a skill and life work as any other job in the world.

    I’d say more, but I’m too sick and depressed. 🙂

  • pat

    It’s definitely all about balance…for mom/kids/family.
    Everyone is different and what is so great is that today, many women have options Not all women, however, have the opportunity to choose and must work. What they don’t want is guilt about never being home. What works for one isn’t the answer for everyone. What we need though is well-balanced kids, however families can work that through!

  • Susan N.

    Speaking of cause and correlation… (RJS’s post yesterday asking, “Is science failing us?”)

    Holly — my initial reaction to reading this post was very similar to yours (#12, 13).

    Pat (#14) has hit on several key points: balance, options/choices, and guilt. Guilt is a big one, and that is connected to the strength of one’s convictions and the extent to which one needs others’ approval to feel validated.

    Somebody is always *not* going to like you or the choices you have made. The culture we live in is so geared to performance and achievement, money and prestige as the sign of success and happiness. That’s a lot of pressure on a stay-at-home mom to “be productive”, and do something really “valuable” and “worthwhile” according to the prevailing cultural standards.

    I have been a stay-at-home mom for a long time. It has its good days and bad days; still I do not regret a day of it, and I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve had with my kids. “Real” paying jobs have good days and bad days, too 🙂 I know, because I did work full-time for 12 years, two of which I was also a mother.

    If the stars align perfectly, and a woman is able to get work that is meaningful (fulfilling, in line with her passion), is flexible (in terms of hours and energy expended in relation to benefit experienced), and, the child(ren) are cared for well while mom works, then that is a sweet, win-win deal all the way around.

    Reality for most women is that work is demanding, pay is not that great, support system is not all that it could or should be, and the stress just multiplies trying to do it all–at once.

    Happiness/contentment is perhaps more about finding fulfillment in whatever you’re doing (whether it is being a mom or getting paid to do a job or volunteering for free), a sense of empowerment (I have the freedom to choose), and affirmation from spouse, family, friends, boss, co-workers that your “work” is valued and appreciated.

    It has taken me a while to “live into” being a mom who stays home full-time. I need others’ approval less now. My self-worth isn’t determined by a value that others set for me. If someone insinuates that my mental health is questionable due to my status as an unpaid worker, I would probably avoid those kind of negative people and find a better support system 🙂 But I’d probably give them a piece of my “warped” mind in parting 😀

    Holly, I’m sending you a virtual hug.

  • Susan, that is so sweet. Thank you, and here is one in return. 🙂 (())

    I….know. I really do. I completely support women choosing, and want them to be able to choose, the things that fulfill them most.

    I think that work outside of the home can be so healthy, so beneficial for a woman – if that is what she wants and what she decides is best for her.

    A little bit of me still wishes, though, that value was placed on those who do the basic caregiving of life. There is a bit of elitism, even in Christian academia, toward the woman who chooses to stay home and care for children, for her elderly parents. I’ve spent 20 years at home, but supplemented at times with private duty elder-care or public relations work, what have you, whatever fit the bill. And yet, I’m still stymied every time I’m asked to fill out the portion of any form which asks for my “occupation.” I am tempted to pull out a resume’ in order to prove my worth, I want to list all of the things I do in a day (many which truly ARE menial but which are foundational to quality of life for others and are a willing investment into their future) but instead, I list “unemployed.” I want to explain, but don’t.

    I…didn’t like the study. I have thought on it all day long. 🙂 I’m glad it validates the working mom – for I support her all the way! On another level, however, it is quite offensive to the stay at home mom. But it is what it is, and need to see what I can learn from it. I was wondering – what if this is not and indictment nor an endorsement, but rather, serves to show that stay-at-home mothers need more support and validation, particularly from their families.

    All in all, I’m glad it is a CHOICE for some (maybe even for many.) If I had to stay home because someone “said so,” I would resent that with everything within me and I would struggle to do it with love.

    Epiphany: Perhaps the expressed thought (in the study) that the stay at home mom does not offer her children the same level of educational opportunity simply means that she does not choose to send them to preschool. What do you think – would that fit the profile?

  • Every person (woman) has to make this decision for themselves. Someone above spoke of the “sacrifice” of giving up your career and I heartily agree that it has been that for me. Although I learned a lot about myself (used to be a workaholic) personally the price was too high with depression and difficulty getting back to work in the midst of a recession. Although I know that my children have benefited from time with me, I do not think they would have been harmed by my working outside the home. And, the depression as well as boredom were not worth it! All this to say, I resonated with the study’s finding that we suffer. I’ve written about my experience as an “Accidental Stay At Home Mom” at ( Not to cross promote but rather to give another perspective without rewriting that here. Thanks.

  • Hey Melody, I enjoyed reading some of your writings. Thanks for the link, friend. 🙂

  • Susan N.

    Holly (#16) – so much of what you’ve expressed tracks with my own thoughts and experiences. Don’t you find it sad that women would denigrate each other for choosing a different path in life (stay-at-home vs. working mother)?

    A little part of us, deep down, always feels afraid, I think, that we’ve made the wrong choice(s). Those who have taken that other road and seem happy and successful on that path bring those fears to the surface. Plus, we humans have this inherent drive to be significant in the world. The impact we make as mothers is hard to quantify, even to ourselves sometimes. That is why, I maintain, we need others who affirm the “work” we do.

    Melody (#17) – thank you for sharing your story. Very powerful. It caused me to remember that first morning back to work from maternity leave. After I delivered my 8-week-old son to the daycare provider, my throat ached with choked-back tears as I walked on to my office. My heart was up in my throat for several days. I got used to it (desensitized to the pain?), but I always felt not quite right about not being with him. My job was very demanding too, so I had plenty of distraction and enough work to exhaust me.

    God has been more real and present to me during this stage of my life (mother at home) than in the previous. This journey has changed me, and the learning and growing continue. As the poet Maya Angelou has written, “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

  • Jason Lee

    What seems most likely is that healthy mothers with greater stocks of education and possibly social skills are the ones more likely to seek out and get work (whether part-time or full-time). If there are effects on children it is probably also mainly a direct effect from the education/well-being characteristics of the mother directly to the child. The fact that the mother is in paid employment is an outcome of her prior well-being and skill set.

  • L.B.

    I am not sure where Susan found women denigrating each other in any of the links provided in this post. Instead, I found the study mentioned in the Huffington Post very telling and informative. I thought the seven indicators that were used to measure each country were excellent measures because they indicate how the vulnerable of a society are treated. They reveal that the United States has a long way to go with regard to the value placed on women and families. I have been both a stay-at-home mom and a working mom and I find value in both things. But business in the United States in general is not family friendly. Most women have to return to work before they have fully recovered from giving birth and then are penalized (inequities in pay and career advancement)for taking time off to care for children. It makes complete sense to me that the study found that women who work part-time are happier than those who stay home full time. Women are first and foremost human. And all humans have many facets to their persons. Both men and women need challenging, interesting “work” to do—whether that is in the home or outside it. I had a lot of trouble being home with my kids full time—primarily because I was home all the time and that was unbalanced. I don’t think it is very healthy for men to work full time (often more)outside the home and be deprived of having more time with their families. Personally, I think we could learn some things from other countries, such as a shorter work week, family leave, a little time off each year—and please—what is up with the high infant and maternal mortality rate?.