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Working Mothers are Healthier?

Posted Jun 03 2013 1:24pm
A recent Pew Research survey showing 40% of households rely on the woman as the primary or sole breadwinner.  Been talking about it then saw it cited in Stephanie Coontz's op-ed in the New York Times this weekend, The Triumph of the Working Mother . Coontz argues among other points that working provides moms health benefits. She cites a recent  study showing women who work full-time after the birth of their first child report better physical and mental health at age 40, than their stay-at-home peers. These benefits didn't apply to women who worked in low-paying positions with inflexible schedules and demands (i.e. ones where they couldn't pump in the privacy of a lactation lounge). So it appears working provides health benefits for most women. Right? Not so fast. It's complicated.

The Pew study found working doesn't stave off depression or make women any happier. According to their survey anything other than full-time employment (staying at home, doing irregular or part-time jobs) doesn't make women more miserable: 
There is also a significant gap in happiness between working and non-working mothers: 45% of non-working mothers say they are very happy, compared with 31% of mothers who work either full or part time. When other factors (race, ethnicity, income and education) are taken into account, marriage is a significant predictor of a mother’s happiness while employment status is not. Modern Parenthood, Pew 2013
Did you get that last part? Employment not a significant predictor of happiness when other factors considered. So how to explain this seeming discrepancy in the literature? That's when I started to get suspicious about the working-makes-women-healthier claim. Is it just a difference between asking people about depression versus happiness? Just a wording issue? Not working makes women depressed? Or a lousy marriage makes them depressed but not their work status?  Which is it? 

Take a closer look at the data in the study Coontz cited by sociologists Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske.  They divided moms into 4 groups - full-time/part-time/interrupted, irregular/stay-at-home (no work). Their analyses included a host of variables and  not surprising, the link between work and health got messy in their statistical models: 
Mothers who “pull back” from full-time employment by cutting hours or delaying entry into the full-time workforce report worse physical health (but not mental health) at age 40 relative to steadily working mothers after adjusting for prepregnancy and at-birth characteristics and accounting for selection, but better physical health than their interrupted and stay-at-home peers. This suggests that part-time work may provide important benefits to women.
Okay so part-time provides mental health benefits to the same degree as full-time work but also potentially worsens physical health but as the authors point out part-time employees often get a raw deal in terms of low-paying wages, insurance, hours, status, etc.  To some degree they control for previous conditions influencing whether women work but it's far from definitive here. They also found women who were married in relatively affluent households were also more likely to stick it out in the workplace full-time after birthing out a baby.  Is that a surprise? They had the better jobs in the first-place.  And might I add, probably better childcare or at least more choices with more income.  

This sounds empowering for many women who go off to work every day. I was ready to go find an office outside the house quick. But then I realized I don't really fit into the 4 categories above and couldn't say for sure where I would have been stuck at the time my first child was born. For those of us who work at home, it gets a bit trickier. I'm not sure the above research really addresses a segment of parents working from home. 

So what about those of us who work from home? How do we fit into this equation? It's unclear. I'm trying to find that research and am emailing a few researchers to ask. 

As for those stay-at-home, largely non-paid parents, I'm thinking there are many different types of staying at home just as Frech and Damaske specified 3 types of working parents, I bet there are at least 3 distinct and possibly relevant groups of parents that stick it out close to home.  Jumbling them all together is like mixing apples and oranges.  

Speaking of staying at home, I stumbled around this Huffington Post article,  Success for the Stay At Home Parent , a thoughful though very brief discussion of a huge topic, how to define success without an office, a large salary or other markers of status and success often unavailable to parents who don't work outside the home.  Hhhmmm.  Speaking of pay and status, I cannot help but notice this (unpaid?) post appears thanks to Arianna Huffington who despite gathering a whole lot of content and advertising moola pays relatively few people.  As it turns out the (unpaid?) post is part of a series attempting to redefine success: 

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money and Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click  here .

I bet Huffington Post would like to redefine success. A truly American-made entrepreneur, Arianna Huffington. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled, unpaid masses.... 

Yes, please let's redefine success. Money, health insurance, status, they're so over-rated especially when it comes to the joys of parenthood.  Kids are small, how much food and clothing could they need anyhow?

*Check out how much Stephanie Coontz , Champion of the Working Woman, resembles Mary Tyler Moore. Coincidence? My imagination gone amok amidst the end of school-year mayhem?
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