What Research Shows About Women's Decision to Work or Stay at Home

Being allowed to join the employed workforce does not mean it is the best choice for every woman or, worse, that women who choose to stay home are somehow inferior.
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Go back to my job. Stay at home. Work part time. Work from home. Take a less stressful job. Lean in. Lean out. You can have it all. You cannot have it all.

The above is an abbreviated list of the advice expecting and new mothers (and sometimes fathers) receive from their friends, family, acquaintances and a plethora of books, lectures and webinars all trying to help mothers deal with perhaps the most significant event(s) in their lives, the arrival of a child.

This employment/home quandary -- filled with questions and self-doubt -- is especially true for mothers who have a choice -- are not faced with a challenging financial situation, marital status or family member health issue. The latter group has choices, but they are much more limited.

For the former group, however, mothers ask me when they learn of my research "What should I do?"

No easy or "right" decision exists for all mothers. My research comprised of 200 mothers with young children in the mid-1990s who had a financial choice and my subsequent study with 123 of them 14 years later demonstrates the best road taken by either employed or at-home mothers cannot be objectively determined and generalized. Their roads taken were based on a wide range of considerations and vary greatly. They also change over time.

All mothers work. That is an important starting point. Mothers who choose to stay at home to focus on the child or children and the family are working -- working very hard -- just like those who go to an office every day. They just work without pay. The feminist revolution that allowed females to pursue education and jobs alongside their male counterparts is a major positive change in our society. And the revolution is not over. There are still too many barriers to female equality for those employed. However, being allowed to join the employed workforce does not mean it is the best choice for every woman or, worse, that women who choose to stay home are somehow inferior. I know I am not the only one who, in social gatherings, was engaged in a stimulating conversation until the other person found out I was an at-home mother. Then some literally turned their backs on me; I was no longer a person of interest.

So what does the research show?

  • A decision made before the first child is born may change when the baby is born. This change is nothing to be embarrassed about, because until you are a mother and experience the emotions and activities associated with that new role, you do not know how you will feel. Your pre-birth analysis might have to be discarded. This is true both for mothers who never doubted they would return to employment as well as those who thought they would love being a full-time mom.

  • Mothers make decisions based on their assessment of their circumstances -- finances, health and education; their values -- what is most important to them; and what they think is best for them, their children and family. A mother's decision about her work status is not "right" or "wrong"; it is personal, and is based on an honest assessment of a wide range of considerations.
  • Motherhood is hard for all mothers, whichever road they take. Working at home presents different challenges from working in an office, but they are challenges nonetheless. Women who seem to have it all -- a job and motherhood -- are often exhausted and stressed trying to meet the demands and expectation of employment and home, never mind having time for themselves. Women working at home caring for their family may seem to be "sitting around eating bon bons," while, like the duck on the pond, they are paddling furiously underneath.
  • Society is too quick to criticize mothers in both categories. Two of the usual comments are: "Working mothers are not paying enough attention to their children," and "Stay-at-home mothers are not very interesting." These negative judgments are based on assumptions and misperceptions that require education.
  • Emotional support from a spouse is important to a marriage and sense of well-being as an adult. Criticism or lack of appreciation is hurtful and emotionally draining for mothers. Couples can and do disagree, of course, and mothers cannot expect our spouses to sit across the table each night singing our praises whether we are bringing in a salary or not. However, mothers need to feel that our spouse "has our back" -- that s/he understands the difficulties, and is supportive of our choices.
  • At-home mothers sometimes feel isolated and bemoan the lack of adult interaction. If they are resourceful and seek out friends and activities, they will receive validation for their roles as mother, wife and competent adult that employed mothers readily receive from other mothers in the workplace, and performance evaluations from supervisors. Validation for what we are doing and who we are is important to feeling good about ourselves and having the energy to give to others whether at-home or in the office.
  • Both employed and at-home mothers claim that because of their work status, their children become independent. Employed mothers claim that their children are independent because they are not around all the time to take care of everything for them. At-home mothers report their children are independent because they are around all the time to help their offspring feel secure and able to fly on their own.
  • More than half of at-home mothers reenter the workforce part or full time when their children are in elementary school. Though a six year old is hardly "launched," the fact that the child is in school gives many mothers the confidence to return to the marketplace.
  • What might have seemed a straightforward decision for most mothers just a generation or two ago -- stay home and raise the children -- has become extremely complex. Employers must understand and implement policies and practices that increase rather than limit a mother's work status choice. Society must understand that all mothers care deeply about their children, and should respect each mother's highly personal work status decision.

    Deborah Kahn's new book is The Roads Taken: Complex Lives of Employed and At-Home Mothers published by Miniver Press.

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