Who's happier — Claire Huxtable or June Cleaver?

I have a unique work situation. I write from home five days a week during school hours only.

Working mom

I have a unique work situation. I write from home five days a week, during school hours only. My daughter is in elementary school, my younger son in daycare. Yet, I can walk them to school, board a school bus to help out on a field trip and pick them both up at 3:30 p.m. when school is over. I can toss a load of laundry into the washer in the daytime, or chop up onions for the soup I’m going to make for dinner. I feel lucky because I’ve got the best of both worlds — I get to work, which I truly, truly believe makes me a happier mom. I also get lots of time to hang out with my kids.

I know I’m lucky, I really do. I know stay-at-home moms who are already planning a re-entry into the workforce once their children start junior kindergarten. I know full-time working moms whose heavy workloads don’t allow them to be there on the first day of school or field trips. I also know stay-at-home moms who are content to be stay-at-home moms.

So I guess I wasn’t surprised when I came across Katrina Leupp’s study, which discovered that women who strive to be the Supermom of their block — the one who seamlessly, effortlessly balances it all — are more likely to experience depression. Interestingly, the study also noted that stay-at-home moms are more likely to be depressed, unlike their employed-outside-of-the-home counterparts.

I chatted with Leupp, the University of Washington sociology graduate student who led the study, to find out: are all Claire Huxtables happier than June Cleavers?  

Q: Why are stay-at-home moms more likely to be depressed than their working counterparts?

A: Having a high-quality job often provides women with an additional source of social contact, accomplishment, and self-esteem. Being a stay-at-home mom can be a good choice for a woman who prefer it, but tends to increase depression among women who prefer to be employed. More hours of housework are associated with an increased risk of depression, which may be part of why depression levels are higher among non-employed women.  

Q: How about working mothers — what are their happiness levels like?  

A: On average, employed women, particularly those with good jobs, have fewer symptoms of depression than women without jobs. Women benefit from the sense of independence and accomplishment that a job can bring.   

Q: How new is this phenomenon, would you say?

A: During the second half of the twentieth century, women’s employment and education levels increased dramatically. With increased education, women have gained access to higher-quality jobs. We know that high-quality jobs improve physical and mental health, so the positive effects of employment on women’s mental health, in part, reflect that women have access to better jobs than they did generations ago.   

Q: So what is the take-away message here?

A: Employed or not, mothers need help with child-rearing and housework from partners and other family members. Women do best when their employment choices match their preferences. Rather than feel guilty about time spent away from children, employed women should remember that their job is likely improving their own mental health, which is ultimately a good thing for themselves and their children. Recognize that juggling employment and family care often feels hard because it is hard. But you are probably doing a better job managing both than you give yourself credit for.  

Why do you think stay-at-home moms are more likely to experience depression? Do you have any advice on how to prevent or relieve depressive feelings? Please share your thoughts here.

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