Being a stay-at-home mum isn't always a choice

What women want is what matters.
What women want is what matters. Photo: Shutterstock

Whether or not stay-at-home mothers or working mums are happier is often the topic of debate. The problem is, however, that it may not be the right question. According to a recent study, it's not so much whether a mum works or stays home with her kids - what's more important to her well-being is whether she's doing what she wants to be doing.

If you're thinking, "They needed a study to tell us that?", well, you're not wrong. It may not be breaking news that if you're home with the kids but longing to be back at your desk, or answering emails when you'd prefer to be at the park, it's likely to affect your day-to-day happiness. But given many mothers find themselves in circumstances that don't necessarily align with their preferences, it's an issue worth taking seriously. And these researchers have done exactly that.

To explore the concept of "employment status" versus "employment preference", a team from Arizona State University conducted a study of over 2,000 mums, which was published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. Women were asked questions about their education and work background, as well as general measures of well-being. They were also asked whether they worked outside the home and whether their employment status was "truly what they wanted".

From there, the researchers were able to divide mums into four groups:

  1. Those who worked and wanted to work (Work-Want Work)
  2. Those who stayed home and wanted to be at home (Home-Want Home). 
  3. Mums who worked, but primarily for the money (Work-Money)
  4. Mums who were home, but really wanted to be employed (Home-Want Work).

Unsurprisingly, a match between employment preferences and employment status was associated with increased well-being in mums. And, according to the researchers, the group experiencing the most difficulties were SAHMs who wanted to work. 

Writing in Psychology Today, study author Suniya Luthar noted that women in this group (Home-Want Work) reported the lowest levels of personal fulfillment and the highest levels of "emptiness" and loneliness. Additionally, these mums reported greater "child adjustment problems" and higher feelings of "rejection" towards their children. Interestingly employed mothers, regardless of preference, reported greater fulfillment than those who stayed-at-home.

But it's important to look beyond that finding."It's not about simply being employed versus being a stay-at-home mom that makes the difference," said Luthar. "We found that women who were living in sync with their own preference exhibited overall positive adjustment." And those mums who were "misaligned" she said, "experienced considerable distress and unhappiness."

According to Luthar, the results make sense when you look more closely at the background of the particular mums included in the study. "These were women who generally had college, if not graduate degrees," she said, adding that it's not surprising they'd want to put their education and professional experience to good use, post kids.

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One participant in particular highlighted the challenges many mums face when juggling work and parenthood. "She had a graduate degree at Stanford, but left her career when her husband's job required him to travel Monday through Thursday on a regular basis," Luthar said, adding that the mum called herself "that Stanford mum turned into soccer mum."

But making compromises for their partner's career wasn't the only reason some women were unable to return to the workforce. For women in the study, the most common reason for staying home, even if they wanted to work, was the cost of childcare.

"These data are important in showing that there are many mothers who would prefer to work but are unable to," Luthar explained, adding that this can have a detrimental impact on mum's psychological health. "We believe that for mothers to be successful in both career and parenting roles, there must be practical and structural support (appropriate child care and flexible hours) that makes it possible."

And while it might be a US study, that's an issue facing mums here in Australia, too. A recent survey found that the cost of childcare for children under five has increased considerably since 2002, up 75 per cent for couples and 104 per cent for singles. Couples now shell out on average $162 per week, while single parents spend $114.

While there were differences between the groups of women, the researchers found one consistency when it came to mothers' well-being. "Feeling emotionally supported is a fundamental need that is universal among mothers, regardless of their employment status," said co-author Lucia Ciciolla. "Unconditional acceptance and authenticity in relationships were consistently found to be important across multiple measures of maternal well-being." 

Regardless of whether they work, stay at home, or if their preferences are aligned with their current situation, Luthar explained that it's vital all mums practice self-care.

"The reality is that caring for children is emotionally and psychologically challenging work, so it is essential that mums get 'refueled' themselves," she said. "Feeling emotionally supported and satisfied with friendships is critical for well-being regardless of one's employment status or preferences on that front. All mums need to be nurtured themselves, and this must happen on an ongoing basis."