Every few months, it seems, researchers unveil more proof that working moms are happier than stay-at-home moms. And every few months, the same old debate erupts as a result over whether that can possibly be true.
Let's make this time different.
The most recent study was presented this weekend at the America Sociological Association meeting in Denver, where researchers from the University of Akron and Penn State University told us that mothers who go to back to work within weeks of giving birth had "more energy, mobility, and less depression by age 40" than those who spend months or years at home.
That comes on the heels of a Gallup study in May, which found stay-at-home mothers were more likely to experience stress, worry, anger and sadness than were those who held paying jobs. Among the findings: 28 percent of the at-home moms described themselves as depressed, compared with 17 percent of employed moms.
A few days earlier, the British Journal of Epidemiology ad Community Health reported that "housewives" were more likely to be obese (38 percent) than were those who juggled children, a steady relationship and a paycheck (23 percent).
And in December of last year, the Journal of Family Psychology in the U.S. concluded that a 10-year-long study following new mothers found that those who held a paying job, whether full-time or part-time were in better health in general, and less depressed in particular, than those who did not.
"Yet Another Mommy Wars Study" was how the website Mommyish described the latest report.
"From The Mommy Wars..." began the headline on Forbes.com.
Yes, it is tempting to see all this as a trope from an ongoing conflict. "It's okay if I leave my children with a caregiver and go to work because staying home is just making you fat and depressed," employed mothers get to say. Then we all go back to our stations and prepare for the next chance to prove that "my choice is better than yours."
That would make sense if this were a fight that someone could actually "win," with one side bringing the other around. In other words, if this were a question of "which is better for Mom," then new mothers could look at all this data and make a logical choice.
But this is not a question of logic, or, necessarily, real choice. If women stayed home (or went to work) specifically because they thought it would make them happier (or thinner), then these studies serve their purpose. I would argue, though, that depression and the like is a side effect of decisions reached for reasons that have little or nothing to do with whether a woman will be happy.
Happiness (and fulfillment and self-worth) are part of these choices, of course. But the real roots here are far more likely to be money (the decision to go to work and earn some, or to stay home and not pay a caregiver) and welfare of children (the belief that a child will benefit from the presence of a parent, or the role model of a working one) and the realities of the workplace (the availability of employment for both spouses and the reality that if one must work extreme hours in order to keep a job that leaves the other to carry the homefront).
Telling those who choose home, therefore, that "studies show you will be less depressed if you choose otherwise" doesn't make a different choice possible.
In an ideal world, there would be fewer studies about relative happiness and more about what could be done to maximize happiness for both "camps." Studies of how to provide more mental-health treatment for poorer women, who are more likely to be part of the depressed stay-at-home cohort. How to improve the availability of child care for women who would like to work but can't find safe affordable placement for their children. How to increase flexibility in the workplace, so that the choice isn't keep the job or be home for dinner.
And while I am making my wish list, I would like one more thing: a study or two about whether men who stay home or more or less depressed than those who don't.
Leaving them out of this conversation is getting depressing.