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Does Work Make Mothers Happy?

8 min

Last October, New York psychoanalyst and author Erica Komisar arrived for an interview on the ABC network’s Good Morning America talk show to discuss her new book, Being There: Why Prioritising Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Just before the camera went live the interviewer told her: “I don’t believe in the premise of your book at all. I don’t like your book.” And that about summed up the attitude of the liberal media, which mostly ignored her 30-plus years of working with disturbed children.

What young children need from their mothers has long taken second place – at least in public discourse -- to women’s right to a career, and perhaps even their “duty” to women in general and to the economy to have a career. But if little children are missing their mothers, perhaps their working mothers are not so happy either.

For more than six decades the thesis of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – that modern women do not find fulfillment as simply mothers and housewives – has ruled theory and policies about women and work. While the book raised important questions about women’s role in an affluent, not to say materialistic society, the answers were quickly reduced to one: women need work outside the home in order to get an equal share with men of economic and political power.

Today it is assumed that the majority of mothers of even the youngest children will be employed, and in Western welfare states government subsidised maternity leave and childcare, as well as tax policies are often designed to encourage it.

Yet the fact remains that many mothers do take time out from the workforce to focus on their young children. It might not be three years, but nor will it necessarily be only the months or single year that they can be compensated for.

Are these two groups of mothers equally satisfied with their lives, or is one group happier than the other? In other words, is Friedan’s thesis relevant to women with very young children? Surprisingly, since the needs and time demands of these children are quite different from those of older ones, most researchers have not explored this precise question.

Focusing on mothers of the youngest children

In a study published last week, however, Czech sociologist Dana Hamplova provides an answer with results from a European study of mothers with children under three. It tips the maternal happiness scales significantly towards homemakers as compared with those in the workforce.

Hamplova used a large data set -- from 6 waves of the European Social Survey, covering 30 countries – and addressed gaps in comparison and measurement of subjective wellbeing that had produced conflicting results in the past. Like several other studies, she says, and contrary to her expectations,

“the ESS data do not corroborate Betty Friedan’s famous idea that domesticity and homemaking leaves women unhappy and unsatisfied. As all 12 different measures of happiness/satisfaction point to the same direction, the conclusion that mothers with younger children tend to be better off if they are not engaged in paid employment seems to be robust.”

However, she immediately adds that it is “full-time employment that seems to be most detrimental to mothers’ well-being.” Detailed analysis showed no significant differences between the well-being of mothers at home or in part-time employment, although there were indications that long part-time hours (20-34 per week) had a similar negative effect to full-time work.

Behind these general findings there are wide variations by country and sub-groups of women, nuances and a few surprises.

Country differences: the effect (or not) of government policies

For a start, among mothers with children under three, the proportion of homemakers varies from 92.5 percent in the Czech Republic to 7.7 percent in Sweden. Eastern European countries tend to have more homemakers -- in Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Hungary the proportion is above 70 percent -- but it is also relatively high in Germany (73.5%), Austria (66%) and Switzerland (58%), as well as in Finland (61%) and Iceland (66%).

In some countries, employed women are on average happier than homemakers. These include Latvia, Hungary and the Czech Republic; Austria and several west European countries, although most of the differences there are small.

Obviously cultural and economic factors come into play in these variations, although not always in the way intended.

Hamplova hypothesised that employment is more beneficial (or less harmful) for mothers in countries with higher support for female employment and accessibility of childcare (think, Sweden). But her analysis showed almost no correlation between happiness levels and the provision of formal childcare, length of parental leave or tax incentives to stay at home or return to work.

It is possible, she suggests, “that public policies have actually lower effect than one would wish.” A 2011 Norwegian study showed that “subsidised childcare mostly crowds out informal childcare arrangements but does not encourage employment.” It might also be the case that the work-life balance promoted by these policies does not necessarily translate into happiness or life satisfaction, one reason being that women become more sensitive to the residual conflict between work and home.

On the other hand, another study found that working women from countries with lower support for maternal employment sometimes experience lesser work-life conflict because only women in particularly good employment situations enter into employment.

Differences between mothers: homemakers and the jobs they left

Does the kind of job a woman has make a difference to how happy she is either continuing to work or taking a break as a homemaker?

Haplova predicted that mothers with low quality jobs are better off if they drop out of the workforce, while employment might be beneficial for those with better quality jobs.

“However, contrary to our expectations, homemaking was positively associated with happiness particularly among mothers who had enjoyed advantageous employment situations [job security and supervisory positions] before they devoted themselves to full-time homemaking (at least temporarily).”

That parenthesis refers to the fact Haplova’s data did not allow her to distinguish between mothers on parental leave and those who dropped out of the workforce, so it is possible that at least some homemakers who had left secure jobs were happy because their return to work was guaranteed.

Happy homemakers: a self-selected group?

Is the link between homemaking and happiness causal – that is, does looking after her own children at home cause a mother to be happier? Or are the happier mothers just people who were more strongly attracted to homemaking to start with and selected themselves into it?

Evidence for the selection effect comes indirectly from a study (Stutzer and Frey, 2006) which found that men and women who specialised in different roles after getting married (men focusing on the labour market and the women on homemaking) were happier already as single individuals.

Haplova says her data do not allow her to test the selection hypothesis, but she is inclined to think it influences her happiness findings. Selection in turn raises questions about preferences and values – things that her study did not go into.

Someone who did go into this question thoroughly is the British researcher Catherine Hakim. Using data from a major research project, Listening to Women, commissioned by the British Cabinet Office’s Women’s Unit in the late 1990s, she came up with a classification of women’s preferences (pdf) with regard to market and family work. She found that roughly 20 percent of women were home-centred and preferred not to be employed; another 20 percent (including most childless women) were work-centred; and the 60 percent in between were adaptive – women who wanted to work but were not totally committed to a work career. The last group were prepared to take any job that fitted in with their family and child care commitments.

The fact that the British government at the time was bent on pushing mothers into work and ramping up daycare – and most Western governments still are – reveals the chasm between the official line on what’s good for women, and what most actually want.

Even more, if Erica Komisar and other psychologists are right, it shows us the dangerous and cruel gap, in many instances, between what babies and little children need and what they have been getting. Komisar, citing the apparent epidemics of ADHD and autism, of growing aggression and depression among young children, argues that we need to become (again) “a child-centric” society.

And perhaps, in an odd way, the scarcity of children today is opening the eyes of younger women. Talking to one of them – in her mid-30s with her first child almost one year old -- about Haplova’s happiness study this week, I found she was not at all surprised. Nor was Komisar’s thesis news to her. She takes it for granted that her child needs her close by for the first three years. After a year of full-time mothering she plans to do some home-based work.

Small families have bred what Haplova calls the “cultural model of intensive mothering”. This could make Western societies “child-centric” in the wrong sense, but at least, after decades of focusing on what women supposedly want and need, the child is moving back into the picture. And everyone stands to gain a happiness dividend.

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Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. This article has been republished from MercatorNet under a Creative Commons license.

[Image Credit: Max Pixel]

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she realized that the latter is even more work than teaching Shakespeare to 15-year-olds and the pay is generally less. Being a reluctant geek, she has never quite got over the surprise of finding herself the deputy editor of an online magazine—a pleasant sensation for the most part.

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