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Really, You Don't Want to Stay Home

Vivia Chen

May 23, 2012

Time_Magazine_Cover_BreastfeedingLet me give you two reasons why women should stay in the workforce when they have kids: First, you won't be tempted to morph into one of those scary "attachment" moms who breastfeed their children until they're walking, talking little critters. (Yes, I'm talking about that Time magazine cover, at right.) Second, having a job will keep you off the streets and make you happier (or not so depressed).

That first point is a personal bias based on aesthetic considerations, among others. The second one, though, is supported by findings of a recent Gallup poll, based on interviews with more than 60,000 women across the United States, ages 18 to 64. Here's what Gallup finds:

Nonemployed women with young children at home are more likely than women with young children at home who are employed for pay to report experiencing sadness and anger a lot of the day "yesterday." Stay-at-home moms are also much more likely to report having ever been diagnosed with depression than employed moms. Employed moms are about as emotionally well-off as working women who do not have children at home.

In almost every measure—anger, sadness, depression, worry—stay-at-home moms reported higher rates; the exception was stress, which working moms felt more acutely. Nonworking moms also experienced fewer positive emotions on a daily basis:

They are less likely to say they smiled or laughed a lot, learned something interesting, and experienced enjoyment and happiness "yesterday." Additionally, they are less likely than employed moms to rate their lives highly enough to be considered "thriving."

Gallup stresses that "even when controlling for age, stay-at-home moms are emotionally worse off than employed moms." But what mattered was economics—moms whose household incomes were below $36,000 were particularly bleak. Gallup says they feel a double pressure—from both "tight finances and the demands of motherhood."

So what does this mean to you—members of the professional class? Well, I guess opting out of a demanding profession like law for full-time motherhood—especially if you're married to Mr. Money Bags—is likely to be a much more pleasant experience than that of your lower-income sisters. I can certainly understand the desire to escape the law, if you have other things going on your life.

But I also believe that this issue transcends mere economic differences. From what I've seen, women—really, all people—have better self-esteem, better long-term options, if they maintain an outside identity (yes, I mean, a paying job), even if it means juggling the demands of work and family. Frankly, I've seen one too many women who quit their careers to stay home, only to find themselves in the job market years later, after a divorce or some other sudden shift in their lives. If that seems unromantic, I'm sorry.

Obviously, if you are miserable with what you're doing, you don't have to do it forever. I'd find an alternative. But quit totally to run the school auction? Not a smart idea.

 Related post: "I Am Not Ann Romney".

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

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Once again, an example of confusing correlation and causation. The author overlooks the very real possibility that the group of stay at home mothers includes those who may have chosen to leave the workforce due to emotional or mental health issues. This would clearly lead to the group of stay at home moms reporting more negative emotions "on average." This is backed up by the data point that states stay at home moms are more likely to have "ever been diagnosed with depression" than the working moms. Ever consider the possibility that the diagnosis of depression led them to stop work?

What I just learned: Really, you don't want to marry Vivia Chen.

Hi, I believe that children benefit from a mother staying at home at least until they are old enough to go to school. If you can afford it then I believe it's one of the best decisions you can make. I know that it can be boring, but I never regretted it. I went right back to work.

Diva Mom says, "From what I've seen, these women [who don't work outside the home] are expected to be on call doing it all, 24/7, because, after all, they don't work. Their husbands believe it's only fair." In fact, this is fair. Marriage is a partnership, and if one spouse is in charge of the home, that spouse should handle all or nearly all home-related matters while the other focuses on his/her career. This heightens the chances that the employed spouse will be successful in his/her career and produce more income, increasing the family's overall quality of life and reducing financial stress. I'm not saying that one spouse shouldn't work, but if this is the choice that the couple makes, the above division of labor makes a lot of sense.

And, by the way, to assuage the guilt of working moms, many studies have attempted to show that day care or nannies do just as good a job of raising or influencing kids as moms/stay-at-home spouses. For anyone who is over 45-50 and has experienced the difference between your kids' friends who have a stay-at-home mom/spouse and those who don't, however, it is obvious that having one spouse stay home is a superior arrangement in the overwhelming majority of cases. (I am not passing judgment on moms/spouses who absolutely must work full-time to keep the family fed, clothed and housed, I'm simply saying that this is not the optimal arrangement.) Of course, there are overprotective or just plain incompetent stay-at-home parents (who probably never should have had children), but my general point stands.

Diva Mom, Studies show that married men do more total work - counting both outside the home and at home - than married women. So those exceptions you note swallow the rule.

Maybe your perspective is different, being a Diva and all.

@Pat: I quit my job as an attorney when I had my first child, and now nine years later, with two kids in school full time, I am trying to re-enter the work force. The time at home with my young kids was precious and priceless- I'm glad I did it, but I must confess it's been hard to find a job. The economy is terrible and you're competing with people that haven't been out of work for nine years. In hindsight, I wish I'd remained more active doing pro-bono work on a part-time basis during these years.

I disagree that having a babysitter means that you are not raising your children. I know many stay at home moms who have full time help and they would disagree with that statement also. My own situation is that I have to work or we'd be homeless. Even if I didn't have to however, I would still work (though perhaps at a less demanding job and if I could find it, less than full-time), because I do not want to be dependent on a man for my livelihood. I saw my mother become a widow with 2 kids at the age of 36. She was not left with a pile of money. She subsequently "chose" to take a job beneath her educational "station" to spend more time with us, which I admire, but don't kid yourself that it was not without significant financial sacrifice. Whether she made the right choice is in the eye of the beholder. Whether I am making the right "choices" (to the extent I have any, remains to be seen. But I am always my kid's mom, nanny notwithstanding.

Another reason why stay at home moms are more depressed and angrier than women with careers and kids is because their husbands don't give them a break! From what I've seen, these women are expected to be on call doing it all, 24/7, because, after all, they don't work. Their husbands believe it's only fair. The only exceptions to this that I've witnessed are women who have either have a lot of their own money, or very dominant women with weaker husbands.

Marisa:

I don't claim that it works well in every situation. In the original article here, she's discussing working women, mostly lawyers of course, who leave the work world to raise their own children. She was not talking about women who never enter the work force and are simply dependent their entire married life on their husband. This was more of a "hey women attorneys, don't become stay at home moms because you'll be unhappy, you'll lose your identity, you'll become a room mom, and you won't be able to re-enter the work force." All of which is fear-mongering and simply a way for some people to justify their decision to have someone else raise their children.

Your mother, for example, could have attempted to enter the work force at some point, especially after the children were in school. If she was not a "professional," she could have learned a skill or gone back to school. She would have raised the children during the very formative years and then had her "identity" and own money as you say. Many, many women do this. They re-enter the work force at all different levels after their children are established in school. Yes, even attorneys take time off and then practice again. I've seen it. Some don't of course.

It's too bad you don't find your mother to be a role model. That's not always the point to being a stay at home Mom, however. It's to take responsibility for the children you brought into the world and not have someone else raise them because you believe your work identity or being able to afford a fancy car is more important than being a full-time parent. Just because you believe your mother didn''t strike the righ balance does not mean other stay at home moms don't (and that other children benefit from their decision).

I disagree with Pat. I resent my mother for staying at home and not working, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I wish she had a career and a true life of her own. It irritates me that she is financially dependent on my father's income, which is fine as they are still happily married, but I'd be so proud if she was one of those working moms who did it all. I don't feel I can't speak to her about corporate life or work at all, and I don't find her to be a role model. There is something big missing from her perspective of life that I attribute to a lack of challenging learning experiences with other adults that a career often (but not always) provides.

Also must mention that it was extremely tough on her when we (her children) fled the nest. I can only imagine what the depression rates are for stay-at-home moms who are faced with the dilemma that their career as a mother has ended.

In the end, everyone deserves to be financially independent and have their own identity.

If you want to have kids and then have someone else raise them, that is your choice. If you want to justify that decision based on pseudo-scientific "studies" or "polls" like this, that's also your choice. Some of us prefer that *gasp* the mother raise her own children. Some of us are even willing to make substantial financial and material "sacrifices" (do I really need another "x") to make that happen. The mother (or father, for that matter) can always go back to work at some point, but you cannot turn back time to the formative years of your childrens' lives. And to mock things like the "school auction" because your asset purchase agreement or discovery motions is *so* much more important and meaningful is not only demeaning, but completely backwards and misguided. And if a professional woman cannot find self-esteem in being a full-time mother, well there are bigger problems.

I agree that it's ultimately a personal decision and there is no one size fits all approach. But you seem intent on denigrating those who put a higher value on raising their children than maintaining their work "identity." I think if it was reversed and stay at home moms, including former lawyers and other professionals attacked working a mother's decision -- and supported it with some study that says stay at home mothers are happier, and even more importantly, their children have much better odds of thriving and succeeding, there would be blog uproar.

So justify your decisions however you want, but also consider the beneficiaries of stay at home moms: the children. You give your personal anecdotes, so here's one of mine. Every single adult I know who had a stay at home mother remembers such, is thankful for it, and credits much of their later success to a great foundation created by the family and not hired help.

Why do we feel like we need a study to tell us it's okay to be a working mom? We make whatever choice is best for us and move on. I recently read a blog about mommy wars by Kristen Howerton, The Only Mommy War Worth Waging, that resonated with me. She basically said that we should stop worrying about choices that competent parents make out of love for their children and start worrying about kids who don't have any parents at all. I am guilty of judging other parents on their choices. This reminded me that there are more important things to worry about.

Wading right into the Mommy Wars, Vivia? I applaud your courage. And the Gallup survey data rings true, frankly. One problem with the "work-life balance" discussion is that it is built upon a faulty premise - that all of work sucks, and all of life is great. Hey, doesn't work that way. Good, provocative post, as usual. Dan Bowling

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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