Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Are Working Moms Healthier Than Stay-At-Home Moms?

And now, for a little controversy...

In a study that was just presented this past weekend in Denver, moms who worked full-time reported better mental and physical health than stay-at-home moms. Researchers analyzed data on over 2,500 women who became mothers between 1978 and 1995. Working moms, in this study, reported more energy and mobility, and less depression at age 40, than moms who stayed at home.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the “mommy wars,” pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms. Although—the debate usually seems to centre around what’s better for the kids.

This study, in contrast, looked at what might be better for moms, themselves. Which is highly interesting to me.

So, if these findings are accurate, why might this be?

The researchers themselves had various thoughts and hypotheses. It might be the financial issue. Perhaps it’s the empowerment factor. Or maybe it’s about the control and autonomy that working provides. The benefit might arise from being in a place where you’re an expert on something, and the resultant self-esteem boost. Does meaningful, productive work (outside of raising kids) bring happiness? Maybe. (And if you’re curious how happiness actually improves health, read this.)

A further interesting aspect of this study was the findings related to part-time work. It’s a commonly cited approach for finding “balance,” to work part-time, right? Well, they found that moms who worked full-time had better mental and physical health than even part-timers.

What wasn’t surprising was the women whose health was the worst, mentally and physically, were the “persistently unemployed.” These are women who repeatedly drop in and out of the workforce, are laid off or fired, or can’t find meaningful work. Tough on mental and physical health, for sure.  

I often feel vaguely uncomfortable with studies like this—as if there is just one way to do it. In my opinion, I’ve always felt these sorts of decisions are highly individual, and if going back to work full-time is not what you want to do you shouldn’t feel pressure to do so. There is no cookie-cutter formula for balancing work and motherhood, nothing that’s going to apply to every mom. Also? Things change over time. What worked for you and your family a few years ago may not be the way to go now.

However, I think the findings from this study might be helpful for women who are on the fence—women who are weighing their options and trying to decide whether to go back to work, and how much to work. Knowing that you may be doing yourself some good—physically and mentally—by opting to return to work may help you make a decision.

So—now your turn. What do you think? Do you work outside of the home? What sort of effect do you think it’s had on your health? Are you a stay-at-home mom? Would you have it any other way?