There’s a new study out today showing that mothers who stay home with children are more likely to be depressed and angry than mothers who are employed. But it is far too simple to look at the data through that one lens. If you dig down a level what it really shows is that mothers with fewer resources struggle more than mothers who have more.
Gallup interviewed 60,000 women this year, asking them about their feelings “yesterday.” Slightly more than half of “stay-at-home-moms” (defined as women who do not earn a paycheck and have children under the age of 18) described themselves as “thriving,” compared with 63 percent of “employed moms” (defined as women with children the same age who do earn a paycheck) and 61 percent of “employed women” (defined as women who either never had children or whose children are grown.) On the flip side, 42 percent of stay-at-home moms described themselves as “struggling,” compared with 36 percent of employed moms and 38 percent of employed women.
Broken down by emotion, the stay-at-home moms say they are more likely to worry (41 percent of SAHMs do, compared with 34 percent of employed moms and 32 percent of employed women), to feel sadness (26 percent for the first group, compared with 16 percent for the second two), and to experience stress (50 percent vs 48 percent vs 45 percent), anger (19 percent, 14 percent and 12 percent) or depression (28 percent for SAHMs and 17 for the others.)
Before you start arguing over whether working is better for women, children and families, though, let’s look at a next set of numbers. When sorted out by income, it becomes clear that money, not employed or stay-at-home-status, has the largest impact on a woman’s mental health. While 42 percent of all stay-at-home moms describe themselves as “struggling,” that number rises to 51 percent of SAHMs with household incomes of less than $36,000; similarly, only 36 percent of employed moms use the word “struggling” compared with 47 percent in this income group. Or, if you change the lens, while 63 percent of employed moms describe themselves as “thriving,” that number drops to only 50 percent among employed moms in the lowest income groups.
As the authors of the study themselves note:
Stay-at-home moms at all income levels are worse off than employed moms in terms of sadness, anger, and depression, though they are the same as other women in most other aspects of emotional wellbeing. Employed moms, however, are doing as well as employed women without children at home -- possibly revealing that formal employment, or perhaps the income associated with it, has emotional benefits for mothers.
However, low-income stay-at-home moms are struggling the most. Many in this group are likely staying home out of economic necessity rather than by choice, and they likely feel pressure from tight finances and the demands of motherhood. Even stay-at-home moms who are not looking for work are worse off emotionally than are their employed counterparts -- suggesting there may be other issues related to their higher levels of sadness, anger, and depression.
So isn’t the real question not whether mothers should work, but rather how to emotionally support those at the lowest income levels so that they in turn can emotionally support their families?