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Why Working Moms Should Feel Great About Themselves

First in a series from the author of "The Feminine Mistake"

by Leslie Bennetts  |  95590 views  |  29 comments  |        Rate this now! 

We all know it’s not easy being a working mom. All too often, mothers who work outside the home feel conflicted and apologetic about their choice, even when it’s dictated by financial necessity. All too rarely do they receive the kind of validation and support they deserve. Between the stress, the guilt and the sheer physical demands of juggling family and job, most of us have days when we wonder why our lives have to be so complicated.

Well, it’s time to take heart! As The Feminine Mistake makes clear, working mothers are, in most cases, doing the best possible thing for their children by contributing to the family income and maintaining their own financial viability. This series will highlight some of the surprising research I uncovered when writing the book.

Prepare to pat yourself on the back -- you have lots of excellent reasons to feel good about the choice you’ve made!

REASON NUMBER ONE: Working Women Are Happier

The media constantly harp on the stress of the juggling act and the relief women supposedly feel when they opt out of the work force. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the grass is greener on the soccer mom’s side of the fence, where stay-at-home mothers are free to devote all their time to children and home. Would working women be happier if they gave up the hassles of balancing job and family in favor of baking cookies and planting daffodils?

In fact, they probably wouldn’t -- not even in the short run, and almost certainly not over the long haul. As demonstrated in The Feminine Mistake, the truth about life as a full-time homemaker is very different from all that retrograde hype about the joys of opting out.

Contrary to popular mythology, decades of social science research have consistently shown that working mothers are happier and less anxious than stay-at-home moms; those cliches about desperate housewives fighting depression and substance abuse turn out to contain a good deal of truth. Moreover, when full-time homemakers return to paid work outside the home, their mental and emotional health improves significantly.

For example, one study found that women who had a child and stayed in the work force showed no increase in psychological distress -- but women who had a child and dropped out of the work force experienced a major increase in stress.

The boredom and lack of satisfaction experienced by many stay-at-home mothers are troubling enough when their children are young, but the problem becomes acute as the kids get older. Wrapped up in their own lives, teenagers assert their independence; husbands are busy with their careers. At this stage in life, stay-at-home moms may find the empty nest traumatic indeed, whereas working mothers with rewarding careers have ample opportunities for positive reinforcement outside the home.

About the Author

Leslie Bennetts is a veteran journalist and the author of the national best-seller, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? Her book was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post and is now out in paperback. Widely hailed as a must-read for women of all ages, this controversial book documents the benefits of work and the risks of economic dependency for women who give up their jobs to become full-time homemakers. She is a long time Vanity Fair magazine writer and is a mother of two teenagers.

Read more by Leslie Bennetts

29 comments so far...

  • Wow. This is pathetic. To read this one would believe that all stay at home moms do is plant daffodils, bake cookies and shuffle their children to and from soccer practice. This woman needs to observe a daycare center for a day. She has obviously never been a stay at home mother. In the rural part of the country where I live, the majority of mothers stay home to raise their children. I have yet to meat one mentally or physically ill mother, or one who has ever had any history of substance abuse of any kind, shape or form. I also have yet to meet an obese stay at home mother. 95% of stay at home mothers I know are out pounding the walking and biking trails pushing their children in double and triple strollers every day and chasing after preschoolers and toddlers on the playgrounds. Instead of shipping our 3 and 4 year olds off to institutionalized preschools, we choose to teach and educate them at home during these years instead. My oldest daughter went into Kindergarten being able to read, write, count to 100, know all her colors, days of the week, months in the year, ect... I also do not know any stay at home mothers who sit on their bums all day. I'm up by 6:30 or 7 and I don't sit down until my kids go to sleep at 9:30 pm. The woman who wrote this article is severely ill informed! And just to clear things up about myself being biased, I worked 40-60 hours a week for the first two years of my oldest daughter's life, and she was in a good quality daycare. By the age of 18 months, she still wasn't talking and we were able to spend very little time with her (let's face it, I woke her at 6:30 am, rushed to feed her breakfast, rushed out the door to commute to drop her off at daycare, spent 8 to 12 hours a day at work, rushed to pick her up from daycare, arrived home only to rush to make supper, give her a bath and put her to bed and then rushed to do housework until I'd collapse in bed at 11 pm only to wake up and do the whole hellish routine again the next day). I wasn't spending any time with my daughter. I wasn't raising her. The daycare was. My husband and I made the decision that we wanted better than that for our children, and so we cut out some of the extras that my job paid for and I began to stay home with our daughter. That was 5 years ago and we haven't looked back since. I love it and every day is a joy!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Dani_me on 23rd May 2012

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    Flag as inappropriate Posted by llzzmm9 on 3rd September 2011

  • I know I'm a little late to the party, but I just had to leave a comment here. By way of background, I have a 4 1/2 year-old and have been working part-time for pay since he was born. I'm ramping up to full-time this fall. I live in an upper middle class suburb. About 80% of my female friends and acquaintances from my town are SAHMs (ranging from late 20s - early 40s). ALL of them are affluent with at least a Bachelor's Degree. In the 4 1/2 years that I've ben in their circle, very few of my SAHM friends have done anything to keep, develop or enhance their career skills. I don't think any of them intend to ever rejoint the job market. Last spring, one of our circle recently lost her husband in a terrible accident. She left the workforce 8 years ago when her first child was born and did nothing to maintain contacts or keep her work skills fresh. Her husband left some life insurance, but little else. She had to find a job in a hurry and is in a low-level mall retail job. Thankfully, her family can help her. However, she has two young girls to support and no currently marketable skills. She's afraid that she's going to lose her house, that she won't be able to afford college, etc. This is exactly the situation that Leslie is cautioning against. Believe me, after some of the juggling weeks I've had, I've certainly considered leaving the workforce (at least for awhile). However, when I think about my friend's predicament, I'm so glad that I kept my hand in the game. It would be horrible to lose my husband. However, I know that I can support myself and my son. I would not lose my house and his education would be reasonably assured.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by on 15th June 2008

  • Leslie,

    I'm concerned that you find a discussion with intelligent women depressing. I understand the need to pat each other on the back, but your approach seems to do that only at the expense of a perceived group of "others." Mothers who "work for pay" don't shuttle their children to activities, bake cookies or plant daffodils? Clich├ęs and stereotypes only serve to polarize, not bring together.

    You said in your book that at-home mothers:

    1) are "infantilized by dependency"
    2) make "childish decisions"
    3) are "willfully obtuse Pollyannas who insist that mommy-track employees are as valuable as full-time careerists"
    4) that Simone de Beauvoir was right -- these women are parasites, and
    5) "all too many mothers are demonstrating for their children is that 'woman is the n***** of the world'"

    Can you really say those things and expect readers to not take offense?

    The fatal flaw in your approach is that it assumes only two distinct categories of mothers exist -- 1) those who work for pay full time and 2) everyone else. In fact, there are probably as many and as varied work arrangements as there are mothers.

    True, some mothers work in offices for 40, 50 or 60 hours a week, while some mothers spend all of their time unpaid and at home. And, yes, some of the wealthy mothers you mentioned in your book employ nannies and housekeepers, and they, as you said, "may not be working for pay, but their tennis lessons, hair and manicure appointments, shopping dates, volunteer commitments, and social engagements frequently keep them out of the house for longer hours than many of the working mothers I know."

    However, those two groups make up a fraction of the whole.

    Many mothers work in schools, hospitals, daycares and studios. Some work the night shift or take on-call hours so they can be home during the day. Some work part time or on assignment for weeks or months at a time and are "out of work" until the next project is lined up. Some are in the military. Some take care of other people's children along with their own. Some "shift gears" in their work schedules to spend extra time and attention on special-needs children and ill or elderly family members. (Fathers do all of these things too.)

    Some mothers were fired when they became pregnant. Some weren't hired again because they were pregnant. Some mothers returned to work after a few weeks of maternity leave only to be squeezed out of their jobs. Some mothers get turned down for jobs because they are mothers -- employers don't want what they believe is the added expense of health insurance, and they believe mothers are unreliable.

    Truth is, we don't live in Scandinavia or even, oh, Vietnam (where guaranteed, paid maternity leaves range from four to six months). Employees have very few rights in the United States. They aren't even guaranteed vacation time. If they get it, they're lucky. The United States has no law requiring employers to offer any paid leave.

    Your basic message that mothers should protect themselves financially is a good one. But you can't shoot poison darts at them -- calling them childish, obtuse and worse -- and expect them to see past that to your message that you truly want to help them. (And I believe you do.) Whatever position they're in -- whether by choice or circumstance -- it's a good bet they're not there on a whim. Mothers struggle every day to do right by themselves and their children.

    Instead of focusing on "mistakes" mothers make, why not focus on changing the structure of the workplace and our nation's policies?

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Becky on 17th March 2008

  • Why on earth do you think I am criticizing anyone for working part-time or working at home, which I do myself, btw? Nowhere have I ever made any such criticism, which is entirely beside the point anyway. The issue here is working FOR PAY and being able to support yourself, and your kids. It doesn't matter where you're doing that or on what schedule, only that you are able to take immediate financial responsibility for yourself and your children if need be. I am having a really hard time understanding why you (and others) are accusing me of having said things I've never said, and taking offense accordingly at some imagined insult. I also know perfectly well how much work it is to run a household, make three family meals a day and raise children, having had two myself. I am not in any way implying that SAHMs don't work hard. All moms and homemakers work hard, but that is quite beside the point if your husband dies or leaves and you suddenly can't buy groceries for your kids or get anyone to hire you or take them to a doctor when they're sick, because you can't afford health insurance. I couldn't care less whether anyone makes decisions like the ones I made. In researching my book I inteviewed women in every "category" -- SAHM, working full-time, working part-time, working at home, divorced, single, widowed, married, old, young, rich, poor, white, black, immigrant, etc. Hundreds of former and current SAHMS have told me what a disaster it was for them to have given up paid work and found themselves unable to get a decent job when they suddenly needed to, whether because a husband got sick, lost his job, died, left or whatever. My reporting plus a half century's worth of social science research, changes in the law, medical and psychological research on women, child development research and a host of other information convinced me that women are taking a terrible chance in becoming SAHMs, unless maybe they're heiresses with large trust funds. Why is it considered controversial or offensive to suggest that women inform themselves about the practical risks of this choice and plan accordingly?

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Leslie Bennetts on 17th March 2008

  • It is clear from Ms. Bennetts other writings that when sher talks about "working moms" she means mothers like her who made decisions like she made. Those of us who work at home or mother at home don't fall into her category.

    While Ms. Bennetts thinks this discussion is "depressing," it is depressing to me that we mush continue to have this debate.

    The "FACTS" get interpreted differently by different people. Just as we don't want a one-size-fits-all life for our children, we don't want it for ourselves, either.

    I've worked the 80-zillion hour work week and did it for over two decades. I've proven my education was worthwhile and that I am capable of a variety of professional jobs. If I want to work at home now and do it part-time, I don't want someone else lecturing me about the "facts."

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by PunditMom on 17th March 2008

  • I cannot begin to describe how depressing this entire discussion is to me. So many women continue to treat this whole issue as if it's just a matter of personal choice in which one person's opinion or decision is as good as another's. The point of my book is that this approach to the issue of staying home versus work leaves out the FACTS, which are knowable and very scary, and the consequences of staying home, which are devastatingly negative in the majority of cases when looked at over the span of a woman's entire lifetime. The title of my book, THE FEMININE MISTAKE, does NOT make a value judgment about the relative worthiness of the choice to stay home. What it does is to document the consequences of economic dependency, over a lifetime, for women who interrupt or terminate their workforce participation. I have spent the last year hearing from thousands of women who ended up impoverished and desperate because they counted on a husband to support them and lost that bet. I have also heard from countless adult children of stay-at-home mothers who have become dependent on their own kids, who are enraged at their mothers for not having taken responsibility for their own lives in a more pragmatic way. These personal testimonials are so heartbreaking, and these consequences are eminently avoidable, but not if women refuse to deal with the facts. It is not my opinion that women lose nearly 40 percent of their earning power if they take as little as three years out of the workforce; it is a FACT. It is not my opinion that twice as many older women end up in poverty compared with men; it is a FACT. It is not my opinion that four out of five of these older poor women WERE NOT POOR until they lost their breadwinner; it was depending on a husband to take care of them that plunged them into poverty. These and all the other facts in my book are painstakingly documented and footnoted, as is all the social research upon which my little series of ten reasons working women should feel good about themselves is based. But women continue to relate to this whole issue as if it's only a matter of their FEELINGS, which get hurt awfully easily, I must say. The actual facts are likely to have a terrible impact on their own futures, and those of their children, if ignored. Sticking your head in the sand is not, in most cases, a sensible way of preparing for various contingencies. Information is power, and I had hoped to share with working women -- for whom this site is ostensibly designed -- some reasons they should feel great about themselves for making that choice, instead of feeling what working women usually feel, which is guilty about all the cultural propaganda aimed at making them feel bad about themselves, which is so abundant in this society. So many working women have come up to me with tears in their eyes and told me that THE FEMININE MISTAKE was the single most validating book they've ever read in their lives. I am not "deriding" the decision made by so many women these days to stay home; I am only saying that economic dependency is a huge risk that is most likely to have unfortunate consequences for stay-at-home mothers and their children, and it's better to inform yourself about those FACTS than to remain ignorant or to ignore them. For this I've spent the last 12 months being attacked. All I can say at this point is that women are their own worst enemies. So sad.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Leslie Bennetts on 17th March 2008

  • I understand and appreciate Ms. Bennett's attempt to validate the decisions of working moms to work, truly. My issue with her position, which echoes the thoughts of other WIM members, stems from the mere title of her book - "The Feminine Mistake." This alone derides the decision made by SAHMs as somehow incorrect or socially or morally undesirable. Her choice of words and generalizations about SAHMs in her article above says to me that she does not respect the choice of some mothers to WORK by staying home to raise their children. She does not recognize that being a SAHM is a job, it is work that is valuable and deserves respect. Since when do SAHMs bake cookies and plant daffodils all day??

    Some families cannot afford the high cost of daycare and it becomes one partner's job to stay home. In this case, making the decision about who will stay home is part of the responsibility of having children in the first place. It's not the right decision for some women, but neither is staying in any job that you don't find satisfying or enjoyable.

    Working women in jobs they like are happier than women who reluctantly remain at home to raise children. Working women in jobs they don't like are less happy than women who freely choose to stay home with their children and find this fulfilling.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by designmom on 15th March 2008

  • I have read the book, and I was very disappointed to see this author being *featured* on the site because she is so one-sided and continually belittles women who choose to stay at home or take time out of the workforce. Bashing these women is not helpful to the mothers who continue working full-time, either. What we need are articles offering helpful tips for our current situations and strategies for changing the larger culture to be more supportive of ALL mothers, whether working, at-home, or some combination in-between.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by SoftwareMom on 14th March 2008

  • I'm not even going to read the comments here but I will say that Nataly's blog post is what got me to come back and read the article. You can see my comment to her over on her blog.

    As for this article I say YAAY!

    I could TOTALLY relate to your points. For me, personally, I can not IMAGINE being satisfied as a stay-home mother and every reason you listed is exactly why. I've been home with children at various points of my life - either I worked out of the home, I was home on a leave or I was unemployed. Let me tell you, full-time mommyhood is NOT for ME.

    I love my career and guess what: I LOVE MY CHILDREN TOO! Oh yes, it is possible to be interested in and passionate about both.

    I feel incredibly balanced (spiritually, mentally and in terms of time management). I do not feel like working full-time outside of the home makes me harried or stressed. Quite the opposite actually.

    And to add to that, I am a single mother. I am not married, remarried or co-habitating.

    Is my life perfect for everyone? Hells no. But it works for me and THAT is what matters most.

    Great article. I'm looking forward to more.

    Thanks, Leslie for contributing to WIM!!!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by KathyHowe on 14th March 2008

  • I'm with Lylah, Kate, Veronica, and the others who didn't really see this article as part of the "working/non-working" mom debate - but maybe I'm naive in that perception. As they've said, it's all work in one way or another.

    I agree with those who've said that your happiness comes from HAVING the choice, and being able to act on it. Not everyone does.

    Some moms do have to work to support their families, no matter what. And while we think less about this side, some moms are still prohibited from working due to repressive domestic/social situations.

    I've always been a working mom, and I think it as better both for me and my son in many ways. It might not be better for someone else and her children. That's all subjective. I don't think there's one right or wrong way to do this, and the conflict comes up when we assume that there is.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Florinda Pendley Vasquez on 14th March 2008

  • I wrote an article on this us-them debate in January ( and the research shows that any amount of work, just a few hours a week, keep women - not just moms - women happier. Life satisfaction goes up. But there didn't seem to be a definition for work. Does organizing a bake sale or annual school gala count as work? To me - Hell yes!

    I'm with some of the other moms who have commented. I couldn't stay home. I don't have the patience. Yes, the gods made us to make babies, but part of that idea is that we evolved to have babies and care for them. Well, I think I'd be that mama panda who ignores her cub if I had to stay home every day. UNLESS I was in her school volunteering (aka doing the work that the govt should be paying someone to do!) to bring in reading programs, raising money for science labs (can you believe we have to do that? dear lord!), or something like that.

    My what makes you happy. If staying at home does, don't feel guilty. If working does, don't feel guilty. Most women move in and out of the workforce, so most of us will log some time on both sides of the fence.

    For those of you who are WAHMs...I salute you! I can barely write my monthly articles with the child around. haha! There's a reason women carry babies...we have too much to do to sit around.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Veronica on 14th March 2008