Are Stay-at-Home Moms Better for Our Kids than Working Moms?

Working stay-at-home mom

Working mothers are often expected to do it all. Society tells us we’re supposed to be strong, independent, career-driven, always aiming to shatter that glass ceiling. We are supposed to be the perfect parent, the perfect wife, the fitness guru, the baker, the coach–the list goes on. 

We are given a lot of conflicting messages about work and parenthood, about what we should do and what we’re supposed to want. We’re told we can “have it all” and if we “do it right” we can find balance.

But our experiences often say otherwise, and having it all feels a lot more like doing it all – and sometimes thinking we’re doing none of it particularly well.  

Can working mothers do it all?

The truth is, working mothers can’t do it all – nobody can. But many women have internalized these rules and all-or-nothing-expectations. When we inevitably fail to meet these expectations, we might experience thoughts like, “I’m not good/smart/patient enough.”

Many working mothers have thoughts that they’re not doing enough for their kids – that they’re coming up short, and this can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Know that most children can thrive with parenting that is good enough, not perfect.

And while it can’t be denied that all moms work (COVID-19 made it difficult to underestimate the work stay-at-home-moms do), working for pay creates particular challenges and a special kind of guilt. This kind of guilt is so common it has its own coined phrase – working mom guilt.

It’s the guilt you feel when you leave your crying toddler at daycare or when your child mentions “all the other moms” who can attend the field trips or mid-workday school ceremonies. Working for pay requires attention, energy, and time. And when work gets our attention, energy, and time, it might seem that our children get less.

Are our children paying the price for our careers? Research suggests no.

Society seems to have a lot to say about the subject of mothers working. Despite the advances in gender equality, beliefs that families are negatively affected when mothers work still persist. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, 51% of respondents reported a belief that children would be better off if their mother stayed home and did not hold a job; only 34% said they believed children would be just as well off if their mother worked.

This leads working moms to ask, “Will our kids be okay?” Considering that most mothers in America with children younger than 18 participate in the labor force and that the majority of “stay-at-home-mothers” do not agree that not working at all is best for them, this is a question on the minds of many.

So, what does the research say?

According to a recent Harvard Research Study that provides data from two cross-national social surveys of more than 100,000 men and women from 29 countries, working moms can breathe a sigh of relief – evidence suggests that children of working moms grow up to be just as happy as children of stay-at-home moms. In fact, having a working mom comes with potential benefits for adult children. For example, research findings suggest that when compared to stay-at-home moms:

  • Children of working moms were found to have more education.
  • Daughters of working moms are more likely to be employed, advance their careers, and have higher annual earnings.
  • Sons of working moms were found to spend more time caring for their families.

The researchers suggest that having an employed mother provides a model for the skills needed to manage both employment and domestic responsibilities and promotes attitudes of gender equality. It’s also notable that there is research to suggest that when mothers work, there is little change in the time (particularly quality time) parents spend with their children–even if you don’t have time to make homemade pastries for the bake sale. 

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To work or stay-at-home?

The decision to work is a personal one that depends on both individual and family factors.  It is complicated more by the “mommy tax” and lack of paid parental leave. Some women don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to working and others can’t imagine giving up their careers. Despite the reason for work, it can almost be guaranteed that managing both work and parenthood will be difficult at times.

Pew reports that half of working moms say having children makes it difficult for them to advance their careers, and more than half of full-time working moms report that work makes it more difficult to be a good parent. So there are bound to be moments of guilt and thoughts of coming up short. However, the research suggests that guilt over the fear of long-lasting negative effects caused by working is unnecessary and your kids might actually be benefiting in measurable ways from you working.

Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that mothers who were employed during their children’s infancy and preschool years reported better overall health and fewer symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms. 

What does this mean?

This by no means implies that stay-at-home mothers are doing a disservice to their children or themselves. It means that mothers can feel empowered to make a decision about whether or not to work without taking societal norms and expectations into account.

It means women can make a decision based on their particular situation and what works best for them. When we stop striving to have it all we can focus on what is in line with our needs and our values and prioritize our time and resources accordingly without worrying if choosing a career is damaging our children.

It’s not. They’ll be okay. And if you still find yourself struggling to conquer that working mom guilt, our therapists are here for you. Sometimes we all need extra support. Please feel free to reach out to us if you would like to learn more about our practice or schedule an appointment.   

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