Working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, and depression risk

May 6, 2011

Working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, and depression risk

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families


Mothers of young children face difficult decisions when it comes to employment. Some feminists warn mothers that staying home is a financial and emotional trap. Some neo-traditionalists counter that employment robs women of a unique parenting opportunity. But such one-size-fits-all arguments may miss the mark.


Research by sociologists Margaret L. Usdansky (Syracuse University), Rachel A. Gordon, Xue Wang, and Anna Gluzman (University of Illinois at Chicago) provides insight into how the decision to work for pay affects mothers' mental health.


There is good news on both sides of the coin. The researchers found that ultimately, women’s preferences for employment and the quality of their job, when employed, affect their mental health. Among employed women, working in a high-quality job is associated with fewer depressive symptoms. This association is evident even among women who say they would rather stay at home. On the other hand, among those women who are not employed, depressive symptoms are elevated only if they would prefer to be working for pay.


“Neither employment nor non-employment is best for all mothers of young children,” said the authors, “rather, mental health depends on mothers’ employment preferences and, when they work for pay, job quality. Thus, it is important for women to consider their own desires and their job opportunities when making the decision to work or not.”


The study has several broad policy implications. First, all mothers—even those who do not desire employment—may benefit from having a high-quality job. Second, job quality should be a central concern when creating policies that encourage maternal employment or require mothers to hold a job as a condition of welfare receipt. Third, it may be important to provide mental health support systems for mothers who are working in low-quality jobs or are unemployed but want to hold a job, and may be at risk of depression. The findings have heightened importance because other studies have found that children’s social and emotional development is limited when their mothers are depressed.


The article on which the CCF briefing paper is based, “Depressive Symptoms among Employed and Non-Employed Mothers of Young Children: How Employment Preferences, Labor Force Status and Job Quality Matter,” will be published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues in 2012.


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