Let the Mommy Wars Begin Anew: Working Mothers Are Healthier Than Those Who Stay Home

The benefits of working include boosts in mental and physical health, a study finds.

Establishing a career and staying employed throughout motherhood might give women a health advantage. (Photo: Sean Justice/Getty Images)

Aug 21, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Mothers who work full time may be healthier at age 40 than their counterparts who stay at home, work part time or go through periods of unemployment, a study finds.

Researchers looked at long-term data on 2,540 women who had children between 1978 and 1995. They discovered from self-reported surveys that women who went back to full-time work soon after having a baby had better mental and physical health overall, reporting benefits such as more energy and less depression.

Those advantages hung in there after adjusting for factors such as previous health conditions, single motherhood and employment history before pregnancy.

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The “why” of this may have to do with what work offers women, and we’re not just talking health insurance. “Work is good for your health, both mentally and physically,” said co-author Adrianne Frech in a news release. “It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy. They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage.”

Although the information may energize the working moms versus non-working moms argument, the authors say they have no interest in fueling that fire. Instead, they want women to know that getting an education and building a career aren’t just frivolous pursuits, but important for maintaining good health and building a stable life.

The research also puts the spotlight on a niche of mothers often left out of the Mommy Wars: women the authors call “persistently unemployed,” who are in and out of jobs, not always by design.

“Struggling to hold onto a job or being in constant job search mode wears on their health, especially mentally, but also physically,” said Frech, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Akron in Ohio. “Women with interrupted employment face more job-related barriers than other women, or cumulative disadvantages over time.”

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She added that making better life choices could translate into better health down the road. Some examples: finishing education and getting married before having children, developing work experience and leaving shorter gaps between having children and returning to work.

Frech advised women not to abandon work and education: “You will have the opportunity to save a nest egg,” she said. “Also, should a divorce happen, it is harder to enter the workforce if you don’t have a solid work history.”

Single mothers have their own set of stresses based partially on a lack of support. A story in Forbes quoted Barbara Risman, of the Council on Contemporary Families and faculty at the University of Illinois’ Sociology Department, as saying, “If you’re a single mom and your kid has diarrhea for three days, well, then you’ve lost your job.”

The authors added that policies promoting better access to full-time work for women through universal daycare, paid maternity leave and wage increases would help women’s health long-term.

The research was presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Assn.’s annual meeting in Denver.

Who do you think has it better, health-wise: working or stay-at-home moms? Let us know in the comments.

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