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The happiest moms? Working moms

Surprising research says mothers with careers are healthier and more satisfied -- but there's a catch


Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 15, 2011 2:15AM (UTC)

Ladies, you can have it all.

Just in time for your back-breaking holiday overtime, a new study in December's Journal of Family Psychology proclaims that working mothers report being healthier and happier than their stay-at-home counterparts. Could it be that the image of the miserably conflicted working woman weeping at her desk because her baby's first words were "au pair" isn't quite accurate? The study's lead author, Dr. Cheryl Buehler, concludes decisively that "A mother's economic role is central to family life, and it supports her well-being and her parenting."

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Not so fast, Baby Boomers! Though Buehler's study relies on extensive data from more than 1,300 mothers of young children across the U.S. -- tracked over an exhaustive 10-year period -- the research is far from flawless. For starters, it's pretty damn stale, as it covers the decade beginning in 1991. So before we bust out the champagne and breast pumps, it's fair to ask whether contemporary working moms, whose companies have been radically downsized and whose bosses may well expect them to be fused to their BlackBerries 24/7, are quite as serene as their Clinton-era counterparts. Even more significantly, the study focused on part-time working moms – with part-time defined broadly as anything from 32 hours a week all the way down to just one.

Not so surprisingly, part-timers had fewer scheduling conflicts and were able to do more housework. What's interesting, though, is that the part-timers showed more sensitivity to their pre-school children than stay-at-home mothers, and that even the more overextended moms who worked full-time didn't report that their work/home conflicts affected their mental health. In fact, Buehler said, "In a lot of areas, there was no difference in emotional well-being" between full and part-timers."

But what really makes this study unique is that the focus is on the mothers as well as the children. After decades of research on how working mothers affect their children, somebody's finally gotten around to investigating how it affects the moms. What makes moms less likely to report depression and sleep disorders? Turns out for many, it's having a job -- a concept that certainly demands further research. The study also takes a big step toward validating the ongoing need for flexibility in the American workplace – and at home. Because what this gets at is the awesome power of balance.

What's right for any family is what makes the members within it as happy and fulfilled as possible. And that's not a one-size fits all proposition. But the idea that both work and parenting – especially in combination – can contribute to a woman's mental and physical health is as good an excuse as any for a general moratorium on the whole ridiculous "mommy wars" meme. We don't have to be in opposite camps, guilt-tripping each other and over-justifying our life choices. We're complicated beings and the things that satisfy us are diverse. They're our children and our careers, our earning power and our rocking version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Nobody said it was easy. But maybe if you want to have it all, a good place to start is by doing it all.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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