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Employed Mothers: Healthier and Happier?

While we often equate work with stress and frustration, a study published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology seems to indicate otherwise – for mothers at least.

As participants the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, 1,364 mothers were interviewed and observed one month after the birth of their child, at the 6, 15, 36, and 54 month marks, and during the children’s first, third and fifth grade years.

Respondents were questioned about multiple subjects: their psychological and physical well-being (with a particular emphasis on depressive symptoms), their views of conflict between work and family, their parenting in terms of sensitivity, providing opportunities for learning, and involvement in children’s schooling, and couple functioning in terms of intimacy and the proportion of housework and child care the women take on.

Maternal Well-Being

At 6, 15, and 54 months, mothers who worked full or part-time reported fewer depressive symptoms and better self-reported overall health than mothers who were exclusively stay-at-home. There was no major statistical difference between the working mothers, regardless of how much they worked, and researchers found that the difference was only present during infancy and preschool periods.

Work-Family Interface

Unsurprisingly, mothers who were employed part-time felt they had less work-family conflict than those who worked full-time. However, both groups of working mothers had the same perceptions about work-family facilitation.


Mothers who were employed part-time also showed the most sensitivity, particularly at the three-year mark versus mothers employed full-time and at the four-and-a-half year mark when compared to stay-at-home mothers.

In addition, mothers who worked part-time provided more learning opportunities for their toddlers and school-aged children compared to those who worked full-time, and they and stay-at home moms were more involved in their child’s school.

Couple Functioning

Interestingly, there was no difference between the mothers when it came to couple intimacy, but mothers who worked part-time performed more “family work” (housework and childcare) than mothers working full-time. There was a small difference in the amount of “family work” taken on by mothers employed part-time and non-employed mothers, but the difference disappeared around the time the children entered school – at 4.5 years, first grade, and fifth grade.

What Can We Learn From This?

Lead researcher Cheryl Buehler, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, states, “In all cases with significant differences in maternal well-being, such as conflict between work and family or parenting, the comparison favored part-time work over full-time or not working.”

The differences between the groups were small, and researchers list a myriad of possible reasons for these differences, including the theories that employed mothers have access to external support and resources that stay-at-home moms do not, and part-time mothers have more time to deal with both family and work than employed mothers, changing their perception of the family-work dynamic.

The Bottom Line

As this study shows, part-time work is something more people should value since it “seems to contribute to the strength and well-being” of not just mothers, but entire families.

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