The whole "working mother" thing actually works

A new study finds that moms with jobs are happier than their stay-at-home counterparts. Take that, Caitlin Flanagan.

By Carol Lloyd

Published December 13, 2007 5:40PM (EST)

Living in this reign of backlash as we do, it's easy to be lulled into the idea that most women would be happier staying home with their young children if they could afford it. It's not that I believe that women should do this. To achieve any measure of parity, women need to kick booty in both the public and private ring. And feathering my nest full time would not transport this mother of two young children toward anything approaching happiness. It would surely send me over some edge the likes of which I'd rather not contemplate.

But the received wisdom is that many women work because they must. They eternally wish they could spend more time with their children. Given the lack of equality of most marriages, vis-à-vis domestic chores and childcare, women with young children who work end up doing double duty, so working in a job just adds to their labors. Then there are those stay-at-home boosters: Caitlin Flanagan promoting her lifestyle choices from the New Yorker, the self-described stay-at-home-feminists. They give faces to all that research suggesting that nearly half of all working women want to give up their jobs to stay with their children and that women regularly limit their work hours to be with their children. Doesn't that suggest that a lot of mothers would be happy to just stay home?

Now the BBC reports there's new research from the Institute for Social and Economic Research that turns all that conventional wisdom on its head. Based on surveys of 10,000 individuals, the British study found that mothers with jobs are significantly happier than their nonworking counterparts. In fact, though most women express a desire to work part time, women with children working full time (up to 45 hours) also exhibit high levels of satisfaction.

The evidence paints a bleak picture of the toll that a stay-at-home life can takes on a woman's satisfaction. For instance, women with no children don't care about their working hours -- working more, less or not at all doesn't seem to affect their happiness, though they express a preference for part-time work. But working outside the home seems to improve the level of satisfaction among women with children. Moreover, it seems that women experience improved satisfaction associated with having children only when the kids go off to school (i.e., when their mothering job becomes a little more part time).

Does this suggest our baby-obsessed culture has overestimated the joys that diapering, feeding, cleaning, cuddling and babbling can bring? I wouldn't go that far. But it does suggest that if stay-at-home mothers are suffering under a mysterious malaise, they might search for a cure outside the doctor's office. They might just need a job.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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